The Future of Reading

As I look ahead to the future of reading, I do not share the pessimistic concerns voiced by so many commentators. If anything, I see just as many readers as there ever were, they are reading more, in more ways, and for longer periods of time than ever. They are reading on the Internet, with increasing frequency on their e-readers, and yes, they are still reading printed books.

I go to Powell’s Bookstore in Portland and it is jammed. People walk around with a basket full of books to buy, others are reading while sitting on the floor in the row after row of bookshelves that fill this five-story bookstore. Darin Sennett, director of strategic projects at Powell’s says he sees no evidence that books are dying.

“People do love bookstores and they’re an important part of our culture. Print books are not dead. People will continue to want them and love them. But their desires and the way they want to read are evolving. I can see print and e-books living nicely together.”

I see no decline in the quality or depth of writing in the books and documents I read. To be sure, my choices are highly selective. But I have more than enough to read, in fact, I am inundated with materials that I have always been drawn to. I am not concerned about students who are said to read less and less and no longer write critically or reflectively. My experience has demonstrated that students vary widely on both dimensions in about the same proportion as always.

Instead what I see is an increasing concern about the quality of student education and the nature of their reading habits. And I read about more and more innovative programs to promote the literary arts among the young. To be sure students, as well as the rest of us, are tempted by an increasing number of distractions on the Internet. But there is good reason to believe that, if anything, they may actually keep us more alert, keep our minds more active and more engaged with the text, whether it be on the screen or on the page.

However, I do have one concern and it has nothing to do with purported decline in reading and it is really nothing new either. Instead my concern is how we read. For me reading is a slow process and one that is always performed with a pen in hand as it was during the eras when commonplace books flourished. Like readers then, I write in the margins of the books I read, I underline text, I make notes on the inside covers. And then I copy all of this into my commonplace book to be read again and again and sometimes drawn upon in something I write.

I rarely see a person reading with a pen or pencil and I ask myself what are they getting out of this experience. Do they stop to mull over a sentence or a paragraph, do they go back and read a related passage in the book? What kind of a record will they have of the encounter? What will they remember? Of course, they will remember very little or nothing at all. But if they collected some of their thoughts and memorable passages in some kind of a record, their memories will be preserved so they can be reviewed and considered again and again.

It is a matter of how engaged a person is with what they are reading. When you are skimming pages, or reading rather casually, literature cannot possibly have much influence. But when you are reading reflectively, writing things in the book or on a separate pad of paper, reading can become an experience that will stick with you, will become something you’ll be more likely to bring to your life.

I am on the same wavelength as Ann Patchett whose words deserve to be repeated: “I have long refused to participate in the last rites of what is both my passion and my profession. I meet too many people who stay up half the night racing towards a final chapter. We are a hardy bunch, we readers.”

I don’t think there is anyone who is immune from the pleasures of a book that speaks to them, no one who can ignore a startling bit of truth or a beautiful expression.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Again Ann Patchett hit the nail on the head: “Why are more people reading? Because they are either discovering or remembering just how good it can be.”