Readings — From the August 2013 issue

Beyond the Book

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By Mark Kingwell, from a keynote speech delivered in May at the annual meeting of the Writers’ Union of Canada and published in the Ottawa Citizen. Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

The issue of reading’s future is almost always framed, these days, as a question about technology. When will e-book sales render hard copies obsolete? Will print survive? Can I monetize my hashtags? Whither Kobo, Kindle, Kickstarter? Is there a living to be made when editors expect to get quality, on-time copy for zero cents a word? Are we approaching a literary Singularity, when every human being on earth will, in fact, have written the book they have in them?

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  • Ronnie Colby

    This is a provocative piece which I thoroughly enjoyed. But, while
    Mr. Kingwell puts aside “… boring, contemporary questions…”
    concerned with reading’s future, I wish he’d said more on the
    “…heart of reading, which is a matter of human consciousness.”
    He focuses on the possibility that reading increases empathy, one of
    civilization’s greatest virtues. But he doesn’t really lay out any
    particular thesis, even though that’s quite an assertion and quite a
    defend-able one at that. Why not expound on this? There are a couple
    of studies cited – surely there are more – but he could likely draw
    on a lot more evidence that FB and social media is arguably doing
    more harm than good when it comes to a meaningful “…psychological
    mode of introspection” that deepens and refines real “empathetic
    scope.” Just look around you and spend some time with young
    people to recognize the general dearth of emotional maturity they
    exhibit, for starters.

    I also find it amusing that the author
    asserts, “…books do not make me a better person, but they give
    me respite from the incessant noise of existence.” I wonder to
    what exactly Mr. Kingwell attributes his concern with this national –
    global? – decrease in empathy. “Worse people” seem not to care
    much about such things.

    A speech limits what one can say, assert, defend. But maybe Mr.
    Kingwell could return to the issue of reading’s correlative effect on
    empathy and that lost virtue of introspection without fading away
    into platitudes reminding us that we’ll always argue about this
    subject. (Thanks Captain Obvious! You can do better than that.)
    Failures don’t abound in thinking that books make people better,
    kinder, more thoughtful. Libraries do, in fact, now replace books
    with computers. People aren’t coming to read Robert Pirsig, Matthew
    Crawford, or Emerson on those machines. They’re FBing or checking
    email. The decrease in humanities funding and increased emphases on
    manual competency (as valuable as that is in nurturing self-reliance)
    sure doesn’t seem to be turning out more folks interested in
    effective civic engagement, either. Let’s see take two, Mr. Kingwell.
    I think you have more to offer here.

  • GardnerHoodCanal

    Yes Ronnie, take two…well spoken (okay, written.) ted


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