July 9, 2004

Reading at Risk from Library – um, I mean Internet

by Nick Montfort · , 3:18 pm

This is the first question for a national research agenda that is proposed by a new NEA report:

How does literature, particularly serious literary work, compete with the Internet, popular entertainment, and other increased demands on leisure time?

As someone who writes and reads serious literary work on the Internet, this question seems to be staring up at me from a puddle of its own drool. It would make about as much sense as attempting to determine how libraries compete with serious literary work.

Dana Gioia, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, writes in his preface to this report:

Reading at Risk merely documents and quantifies a huge cultural transformation that most Americans have already noted – our society’s massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information. … most electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands on their audiences, and indeed often require no more than passive participation. Even interactive electronic media, such as video games and the Internet, foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification.

The funny thing is, the report does not document such a shift. There are no results pertaining to the effects of video games or the Internet on literary reading, only rhetoric without foundation.

The executive summary similarly asserts:

Literature now competes with an enormous array of electronic media. While no single activity is responsible for the decline of reading, the cumulative presence and availability of these alternatives have increasingly drawn Americans away from reading.

The report later admits that “frequent readers watch only slightly less TV per day than infrequent readers” and that “[i]n some cases, TV watching may have a positive impact on literary reading.” The conclusion is that “television does not seem to be the culprit.” But one must be found…

Chapter 4 begins by pointing out two examples of how life has changed since the first data was collected in 1982. (Hint, hint: These are the important changes that have caused the decline in literary reading!) One is popular access to the Internet; another is the proliferation of video games since the 1980s, “a time when Atari sets were fairly new.” The report points the finger at the Internet on page 30 and mentions elsewhere that it could “possibly” be the cause of the decline in reading, but there is simply no research result to support this. In fact, the idea is contradicted by evidence presented in the report itself.

A 2001 Gallup report, the only thing linking book reading and Internet use, is cited; it concluded that Internet users read just as many books as non-Internet users. Of course, if you’re willing to take into account that the reading they do online counts as reading — obvious as that should be — they’re reading much more.

Still, the report thinks the Internet did it! After all, “[d]uring the time period when the literature participation rates declined, home Internet use soared.” Sure, there’s been massive consolidation of book publishers during that time, and cell phone use also has really taken off, but why not peg it on the Internet, since, after all, that was something than changed between 1982 and 2002? Well, it gets better! “home Internet users have a similar profile to literary readers.” Of course, that couldn’t result from an underlying factor like wealth, education, or available leisure time — it must be that book readers have been fleeing in droves. I would have to agree with the report’s note that “this pattern of falling literary reading rates timed with rising home Internet use may only be coincidental.”

There was in fact a single survey question that did pertain to digital media. It actually didn’t deal with competition between literature and the Internet at all. It simply revealed that “9 percent [of all people surveyed] used the Internet to learn about, read, or discuss topics related to literature.” Although there’s no data from previous decades, this would presumably be up from almost zero in 1982 and not much more in 1992. Since we’re tracking trends, this is probably a relevant one to watch.

This comment in chapter 4 is certainly apropos: “The effects of mass media, particularly television, movies, and the Internet, merit further scrutiny and research.” Indeed — less baseless rhetoric and more scholarship and understanding would be welcome. Instead of assuming that there’s only competition between different media, why not pose a national research agenda question like this one:

What role can literature play in a changing technological, media, and work environment, and how can it live on and develop in new ways, orally, in print, and digitally?

In case any literary readers suspicious of the Internet end up making it this far, here’s some serious literature:

The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot / Blue Company / Galatea / Photopia / Reagan Library / The Unknown