By Stan Persky | January 24, 2014

Paul Socken (ed.), The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age? (2013).

Paul Socken, a recently retired four-decade veteran of the French Studies department at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, is the editor of a pertinent new anthology that worriedly explores the question of reading literature in the digital age. Right at the outset of The Edge of the Precipice, Socken offers an introductory anecdote that, at the very least, gets my attention as a fellow teacher. “Shortly before my retirement,” he says, “I asked students how many read a newspaper in print or online: hardly any. I asked how many read literary texts, such as novels, poetry or short stories: very few. I asked how many read history or any other non-fiction: again, few. It became increasingly apparent that some fundamental change was taking place.”

Not so coincidentally, I and many other teaching colleagues have been asking students the same questions and getting similar answers. Some of the contributors to The Edge of the Precipice report analogous findings from other frontlines in the university sector. (The title of Socken’s anthology, by the way, comes from an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay in The Crack-Up (1945) in which the Great Gatsby author invites us to “draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I will tell you a story.”)

Sven Birkerts, author of the prescient Gutenberg Elegies (1994), gives us a recognizable snapshot of the students he teaches at Bennington College and elsewhere in his essay in this collection called “Reading in a Digital Age: Notes on Why the Novel and the Internet Are Opposites…”: “In class they sit with their laptops open on the table in front of them. I pretend they are taking course-related notes, but would not be surprised to find out they are writing to friends, working on papers for other courses, or just trolling their favourite sites while they listen.” Or half-listen. Birkerts is correspondingly cautious in class about not being tagged an old fogey. As he says, he presents book information to them “with a slight defensiveness; I wrap my pronouncements in a pre-emptive irony. I could not bear to be earnest about the things that matter to me and find them received with that tolerant bemusement… we extend to the beliefs and passions of our elders.”

Stephen Brockmann, a professor of German at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is able to imagine a typical student’s soliloquy about why reading isn’t for him. Reading cuts off Brockmann’s imaginary student from “what’s going on around me”; what’s more, literature “takes time away from my friends, and also from money earning.” Not only is it hard, not particularly pleasurable work, “reading also takes me away from the present and puts me into the past. Quite frankly, I’m not interested in the past… something like Shakespeare or even Homer that has nothing whatsoever to do with the world I’m living in now — in fact nothing to do with me. Literature is old. It’s been around forever… So have most of my professors.”

All of this is kind of funny as schtick until you recognize that you don’t have to make this stuff up. Brockmann adds, “Lest anyone think that I am… simply practicing the art of fiction myself, let me hasten to add that, within the last few years, it has more than once happened to me that a student after taking several courses with me, has politely — ever so politely, careful not to seem too aggressive — let me know that literature just isn’t his thing.” By the by, Professor Brockmann warns that “proponents of literature in the digital age ignore such comments and sentiments at our peril,” and he goes on to propose strategies for responding to them, in order to, as he says, “make the case,” for literature and much else.

What you get from this initial class of 2014 portrait is that, irrespective of whether we can figure out a good reason for reading “literature in the digital age,” in fact, students are not, in their free time, reading a lot of anything at all, much less “literature,” and worse, they’re living in a culture that encourages them to blast away at “Grand Theft Auto” or “Code of Conduct: Ghosts” video games, while texting their 50 closest acquaintances, and semi-listening to Beyonce’s latest album (maybe all at once).

Let me immediately add two qualifying remarks to this reconnaissance of the intellectual landscape. First, the reason there’s so much focus on students and teachers here, aside from the fact that the classroom is the natural habitat of most of the authors of this book, is that what happens to students, as individuals, consumers, social media participants, and, oh yes, citizens, will determine the fate of democratic societies over the next couple of decades. And if the one out of four (or out of three, or even two) of their age aggregate who are in post-secondary education are in intellectual trouble (i.e., not reading much) despite being in university, what about the 50-75 per cent of 18-24-year olds who are left to the untender mercies of the general culture?

At the backwater (but excellent!) university where I work, last semester I taught Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve to second year students in a Philosophy and Literature course. Greenblatt’s detective-story-like account of how the Roman poet Lucretius’s The Nature of Things was rediscovered by 15th century Renaissance humanists, who found a 9th century copy of the poem stashed away in a German monastery after it had been out of circulation for a millennium and a half, went over pretty well. The only small problem I encountered was that most of the students hadn’t heard of the Roman Empire, much less the Fall of Rome, the Middle Ages (dark or not-so-dark) or the Renaissance. “Oh,” I said, in my most chipper tone of voice, “I’ll explain it to you.” Admittedly, the students where I teach might be described as more like their age-mate counterparts who are not in post-secondary education than those matriculating in elite research universities, but their state of mind is not atypical of their generation. They had no trouble, I should report, in discussing the finer details of Miley Cyrus’s career.

Second, it turns out that it’s surprisingly difficult to get the facts on the health of reading in the digital (or any other) age, or conversely, on the terminal “decline of reading,” if that’s what’s happening. If you go to Harvard University’s “Ask a Librarian” website and inquire whether book sales are up or down, the site reports that, “Strange as it may seem, we know of no reliable, publicly-available way to get comprehensive statistics for book sales at this time. The only database with reasonably accurate information is Nielsen BookScan, which reports point-of-sale data, but even that claims to represent only 75% of all retail sales…” And when you look at whatever numbers Nielsen provides in its bestseller lists, the lists are so depressingly laden with not-quite-books, revelations of heaven, and various bodice-and-butt-busters, that it almost doesn’t matter what the figures are. Colin Robinson, co-publisher of a mid-size New York press, says in a recent op-ed piece, “Overall book sales have been anemic in recent years, declining 6 per cent in the first half of 2013 alone.” (Colin Robinson, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader,” New York Times, Jan. 4, 2014.)

There are hundreds of thousands of new titles published annually, but sales claims are conflicting and often driven by the agendas of reporting agencies (such as publishers’ associations). It’s possible that the publishing industry is in the midst of a transition not dissimilar to that experienced a few years ago by the music business when it went through a digital revolution that undermined traditional “major labels” and standard modes of music distribution. Whether books and book-reading works like music-listening and movie-viewing is still a matter of speculation. Who knows, maybe everything will come up literate roses.

At the same time, stand-alone book review sections of newspapers (excepting that of the New York Times) have disappeared; book reviews are shorter, fewer, and softer; and it’s not at all clear that online and crowd-sourced reviewing (such as that provided by Goodreads or its owner, Amazon) is an adequate replacement for what used to be literary criticism. Robinson notes that “online reviews like the Los Angeles Review of Books and The New Inquiry are striving to fill the gap,” but adds, the professional book reviewer is “today’s increasingly rare bird.” What was, at the best of times, a full-time job with a half-time salary, is today, “more of a part-time job with no salary.”

More pertinently, the facts about whether reading practices are in decline or not are also hard to come by, and what we have by way of actual information isn’t reassuring. What we do have are the impressions of people like the mostly academic contributors to Socken’s collection. I think there’s a consensus among those of us teaching humanities and social sciences in post-secondary institutions that by and large students are not reading much these digital days, except for the 5 per cent or so of the student body who are already readers like us.

The last substantial report I’ve seen on the topic is Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein’s provocatively titled The Dumbest Generation (2008), which is based on National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) reading surveys conducted in the first decade of the century, one of which Bauerlein himself was directly engaged in as a principal researcher. Bauerlein shows that there’s been a general decline in literary and all other sorts of reading over the last 35 years or so (at least since 1975) among all age groups, and especially among young people. Not only is there less reading, there’s less competent reading, and writing isn’t improving either. Relatedly — and this is interesting — there are accompanying “knowledge deficits,” as they’re known in the teaching trade. That means that people, particularly students, “don’t know much,” as the old song goes, “about history,” or geography, political science, sociology, civic structures, general science or the arts (except for the pop culture materials targeted at the youth market). Although a 2009 NEA mini-report indicated a slight uptick in reading, its methodology was murkier than earlier full reports. In any case, we have lots of stats to show that this widespread ignorance in the desert isn’t simply a mirage concocted by social critics. The most recent mass surveys, the 2013 OECD’s assessment of adult knowledge skills in literacy, math, and problem solving across some 20 industrially developed countries supports the picture Bauerlein presents.

The Edge of the Precipice is not intended to extend our empirical evidence of the state of reading. But all of the above would suggest that perhaps Socken’s initial question about reading literature is too narrow. Not only are young people not reading much literature, they’re simply not reading much, period. More important, in an era when more people have unprecedented access to more information than in any previous period, there’s no evidence that today’s generations are more knowledgeable than those of the recent past, and indeed, there are signs that, if anything, it is ignorance, not knowledge or understanding, that’s spreading. Although I come down on the gloomy side of the are-they-reading question, the issue remains open.

The soberest assessment of the prospects for reading (and more) is provided by J. Hillis Miller, a Distinguished Research Professor at the University of California at Irvine. After offering a thought-provoking interrogartion of a W.B. Yeats poem that Miller is especially passionate about, he asks, “Do I think much future exists in American colleges and universities or in our journals and university presses for such readings? No, I do not. I think this dimming of the future for literary studies has been brought about partly by the turning of our colleges and universities into trade schools, preparation for getting a job … but perhaps even more by the amazingly rapid development of new technologies that are fast making literature obsolete, a thing of the past.” I rather prefer Miller’s grim sobriety in his essay, “Cold Heaven, Cold Comfort: Should We Read or Teach Literature Now?” to those offering cheerful bromides.

Miller is one of the few contributors to this book who locates its sub-title question within a broader social context. When he asks if we should read or teach literature now, he makes it clear that he doesn’t intend a rhetorical query: “By ‘we’… I mean we students, teachers, and the ordinary citizens of our ‘global village,’ if such a term still means anything. By ‘read’ I mean careful attention to the text at hand… By ‘literature’ I mean printed novels, poems, and plays. By ‘now’ I mean the hot summer of 2010, the culmination of the hottest six months on record… I mean also the time of a barely receding global financial crisis and worldwide deep recession. I mean the time of desktop computers, the Internet, iPhones… Google, computer games by the thousands, television and a global film industry. I mean the time when colleges and universities are… losing funding and are shifting more and more to a corporate model.

In the face of that reality, Miller has his doubts. Maybe the question isn’t, Why read literature now?, but rather, Is a real education possible within the current cultural context? The issue, I suspect, isn’t about the technological medium, but about the message, i.e., the uses to which we put the technology. There’s nothing that formally mandates the use of communications technology for largely trivial entertainments, but there is enormous cultural pressure, on individuals and institutons, to adopt the algorithms of corporate capitalism.

I suppose, by their very nature, collections such as The Edge of the Precipice tend to be uneven. Also, the book seems somewhat unevenly put together, with the various essays written at different times in the last few years and clearly for different occasions and diverse purposes.

There’s almost inevitably one too many professors emeriti recounting past glories on the field of honour. Former Brock (Ontario) University professor Leonard Rosmarin’s upbeat, tough-love-ish “How Moliere and Co. Helped Me Get My Students Hooked on Literature,” might qualify in that category. There are also, to my mind, several too many essays in which the authors rush to the barricades clutching leather-bound codexes and nostalgically proclaiming the superiority of ink-on-paper books over heartless digital screens (ah yes, the smell of ink like the bouquet of a good vintage, crackling book spines, rustling pages, and all that). Does any of that really matter? Newman University (Wichita, Kansas) professor Michael Austin’s “Why I Read War and Peace on a Kindle (and Bought the Book When I Was Done)” is charming, but its arcane wisdom about e-books vs. paper books on shelves made little sound when it fell in the forest of my mind.

Finally, this sort of book tends to inspire upbeat, motivational-speaker-type perorations that fall into the “Why I Read” category. Maybe the best of them here is Lori Saint-Martin’s “Fragments from an Entirely Subjective Story of Reading,” which frankly addresses, “‘Why I read’ and not ‘why should others read.'” The University of Quebec at Montreal literature professor pretty much begins and ends her essay with “Some people read; most people don’t. I do.” Again, there’s considerable charm in such pieces, but I’m not sure of the point, especially since the book’s intended audience are members of a choir that doesn’t need more preaching to.

On the other hand, you can’t go too far wrong with a volume that contains essays by Sven Birkerts, J. Hillis Miller, Alberto Manguel and Mark Kingwell. You’re pretty much guaranteed a thoughtful, challenging encounter with such writers aboard. Kingwell, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, begins his “Language Speaks Us” essay with that eponymous thought of Heidegger’s, and crisply moves to questions of language and paradoxes of self as being at the heart of the reading experience. Along the way, he doesn’t forget to register the humanist notion that “reading is itself democratic. Literacy, especially of the critical variety, is the software of citizenship, as essential to the liberal humanist state as the virtues of tolerance, respect and discursive civility.”

While Kingwell gives equal weight to what are known as anti-humanist arguments, he observes that “there is markedly more narcissism… among contemporary techno-autistics who indulge in non-book linguistic interactions such as instant messaging and tweeting than among habitual readers of long-form prose.” In the end, Kingwell reminds us that language, for us humans, is inseparable from our experience of reality, and that while the self may be a fiction, perhaps our “center of narrative gravity” (to use Daniel Dennett’s phrase) is a necessary fiction.

For Alberto Manguel, the author of A History of Reading (1996) and The Library at Night (2007), books are inevitably palimpsests in which readers discover in a text “the record of one’s own experience.” That is, it is the reader’s reading of a book that individuates it. Manguel, one of the few non-academics in Socken’s collection, but an almost charter member of the “Republic of Letters,” recognizes that “librarians today are increasingly faced with a bewildering problem: users of the library, especially the younger ones, no longer know how to read competently. They can find and follow an electronic text, they can cut paragraphs from different Internet sources and recombine them… but they seem unable to comment on and criticize and gloss… the sense of a printed page.” The current technology “lends users the illusion of appropriation without the attendant difficulty of learning. The essential purpose of reading becomes lost to them.” That purpose isn’t lost on Manguel, who offers a characteristically eloquent recommendation to read, if you’re in the midst of a medical emergency (as Manguel found himself a few years ago), Cervantes’s Don Quixote as a perfect remedy for what ails you.

Of the contributors to this meditation on the precipice, I’m particularly taken with Birkerts’s “notes” on “Reading in a Digital Age,” both in terms of stylistic felicity and an unpretentious willingness to think aloud without feeling required to nail down conclusions. Birkerts breathes new life into the notion of an “exploratory essay,” as he moves easily from classrooms full of students possibly updating their Facebook statuses to contemplations of the latest alarming notion “that there may not be such a thing as mind apart from brain function,” thus plunging us into current debates about neuropsychology and the human need for narration. He also manages to say some sensible things about the novel, that “condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours,” again without an anxious urge to establish precise definitions. A line I recently read in an essay by philosopher David E. Cooper about the sea and the sun-lit reflections on its surface struck me as equally applicable to reading:  “In and through it, something significant about the worldshows up for us.” (David E. Cooper, “In Praise of Epiphanies, Los Angeles Review of Books, Jan. 6, 2014.)

Perhaps the one unfortunate thing about books like this one is that they tend to provoke loud, tuneless whistling-past-the-graveyard rebuttals. A particularly dopey Toronto Globe and Mail review of Socken’s anthology was robustly headlined, “Books aren’t going anywhere…” and the accompanying piece, by the “Michael Ridley Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Guelph [Ontario]” — now, there’s a mouthful of academic title — offered cheery “there-there” reassurances.

“The next time you feel yourself giving in to the sometimes overwhelming urge to panic about the fate of literature in the digital age,” advised the Ridley Postdoctoral Fellow, a chap named Adam Hammond, “follow this simple remedy: remember that you dream. For that is ironclad proof, on par with the Turing Test, that literature — that narrative art in whatever form — will never die.” Um, thanks. Speaking of which, in my dream the other morning, I got into a Bangkok taxi and as I was about to tell the driver my destination, I realized that I had forgotten the name of the hotel where I was staying or even the approximate neighbourhood where it might be located. Oh well, Real Life writes Real Bad Narrative, and the sub-conscious often doesn’t do much better. (Cf., if you must, Adam Hammond, “Book aren’t going anywhere — despite the threat of robot sonneteers,” The Globe and Mail, Dec. 21, 2013.)

I guess the real debate here is exactly how close to the edge of the precipice we are, and what kind of a cliffhanger story we ought to be telling about the state of our digitalized civilization. One could do worse than begin with Paul Socken’s anthology to get a view of the abyss.


Published at Los Angeles Review of Books, Jan. 24, 2014.









  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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