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?
You will forgive me if I set these standard, mostly boring, contemporary questions aside for the moment. The scope of technology’s effects lies on a timescale none of us can survey, creating only opportunities for self-serving predictions — either wildly optimistic or comprehensively gloomy, depending on your interests, age, and health plan. More important, these of-the-moment technology-driven concerns do not get us closer to the heart of reading, which is a matter of human consciousness.
I emphatically do not mean that technology is neutral. Although you can use Facebook or Twitter for social activism as well as for casual hookups, just as you can use a gun to topple a tyrant or exact personal revenge, all technologies have built-in tendencies, if not outright teleologies. You can use either a pillow or a gun to kill a person, but people with guns kill more people than do people with pillows. Marshall McLuhan was correct: sometimes the medium really is the message.
McLuhan himself could be bold, sometimes wacky, on the subject of reading. “As a drastic extension of man,” he said in a 1969 interview with Playboy, the printing press
was directly responsible for the rise of such disparate phenomena as nationalism, the Reformation, the assembly line and its offspring, the Industrial Revolution, the whole concept of causality, Cartesian and Newtonian concepts of the universe, perspective in art, narrative chronology in literature, and a psychological mode of introspection or inner direction that greatly intensified the tendencies toward individualism and specialization.
That is all good fun, though it does raise the awkward question of which features of the modern world weren’t spawned by movable type. Hoopskirts? Monster-truck rallies? Martin Heidegger analyzes technology with both more wisdom and more prescience. The task is not to understand the function of this or that tool, he argues, but rather to examine the way technology comes to rule every aspect of existence. This enframing, as Heidegger calls it, which places everything within the ambit of possible use and disposal, is the real meaning of technology. You could not hope to find a clearer example of this than the current debate about the future of reading. As long as we continue to think about reading in the context of technology, we will fail to see the possible effects of our self-imprisonment.
Another standard misconception is that there is a single form of reading in question, and a single future for it. Current debates are overwhelmingly premised on the false idea that “reading” in its highest or best form means reading books, most often the realist novels of the middle-class condition that have dominated the modern age. But reading has always offered us a host of experiences, from the mundane to the spiritual, including the dipping, skimming, and hyperlinking that now seem to worry people so. The specific concern for the future of the bound book should be seen for what it is: a form of special pleading whereby a particular (how I like to read) masquerades as a universal (reading!).
I want to suggest a possible starting point that takes seriously at least the last item in McLuhan’s list of effects, the idea of a “psychological mode of introspection” that attends reading, an inwardness related to individualism. I will begin by asserting the following contradiction of late technocapitalism: we (a) are more networked than ever and yet (b) exhibit a growing deficit in that fellow-feeling usually labeled empathy. Researchers at the University of Michigan, in a 2010 study, found that American college students are 48 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with a sharper dip — 61 percent — having occurred in the past decade. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the prevalence of narcissistic-personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their twenties as for the generation that is now sixty-five or older. These trends strongly correlate to increasing online connectedness.
Now, one could dispute the value of empathetic connection, as various psychologists have lately done. It has highly selective effects and can lead to an irrational allocation of resources. But surely it is overall a good thing for human societies to be based on some degree of reciprocal regard for one another. Hobbesian competition goes only so far to underwrite social norms and the behavior that meets them. We have learned to be better than that, and part of how we have done so is indeed tied to reading, as McLuhan suggests.
The rise of an educated reading public was linked inextricably to the emergence of democratic liberalism in the Western world. The development of the novel as a literary form is likewise conjoined with the idea of open public discourse and rational-critical debate. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, examining the origins of the “rational public sphere,” dwells at some length on the significance of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary novel Pamela. One of the first massive literary sensations in Britain, Pamela relates the story of a beautiful young maidservant who is repeatedly importuned and then imprisoned by her nobleman employer, who is infatuated with her. She must fend off his attempts at seduction and rape.
Often read aloud in contemporary reading groups, the novel entranced and shocked its time; it spawned critiques, imitations, parodies, unauthorized sequels, and endless discussion in coffeehouses, drawing rooms, and literary journals. Richardson’s use of letters and journal entries as raw material introduces the element of consciousness that strikes Habermas and others as so influential. We are reading Pamela’s private thoughts, with the page of her writing a kind of free interior space even when her movements are constrained. But her master, known as Mr. B, is intercepting her letters as part of his campaign to break her will. We are, then, as it were, reading over his shoulder. Mr. B begins to admire Pamela’s naturally noble character as well as her good looks, while she succumbs to Stockholm syndrome avant la lettre and falls in love with him. They enter into what we are meant to understand is an equitable marriage — thus the novel’s alternative title, Virtue Rewarded — but even some eighteenth-century readers found this happy consummation of upper-class lust a bit too neat.
The novel brilliantly enacts the process noted by Marx in which a “sentimental veil” of human interest descends over the economic realities of class, marriage, property, and procreation. But it was the psychological interest that made the novel’s success possible in the first place. In a manner now so familiar that it is difficult to imagine how revolutionary it felt in 1740, readers were able to substitute the consciousness of a (fictitious) other person for their own. This doubling and suspension of consciousness is, paradoxically, essential to enriching one’s own sense of interiority or inwardness. Reading offers a heady way of identifying with another, mirroring and reinforcing the self. We might match it with Immanuel Kant’s stirring claim, made some four decades after Pamela’s publication, that the motto of the Enlightenment should be a generalized version of Horace’s imperative sapere aude: have the courage to think for yourself!
After Richardson’s example, the gold rush is on. Jane Austen’s subtle ironizing about female existence begets Henry James’s hypernuanced appreciation of aesthetic and cultural experience, then the high-water marks of Proust’s and Virginia Woolf’s representations of consciousness itself. (Kant, meanwhile, makes possible Hegel on Geist, John Stuart Mill on liberty, and Wittgenstein on language, to mention just the barest few.) What such reading does, then, is something like this: it objectively summons a subjectivity that belongs to each one of us. The interiority thereby revealed and reinforced is democratic in the sense that it is available to anyone with the requisite tools of literacy and access to books.
We might argue about the relative merits of fiction and non-fiction, as the fictional characters in Austen sometimes do, but it is clear that printed books and the democratized culture of reading they enable are the most significant developments in human consciousness since, perhaps, the advent of writing itself. Dictators and medieval monks alike feared the transmission of knowledge via printed books, a technology of access to learning and pleasure that suddenly, and massively, escaped institutional control. The monks would adapt, more or less, which is why we still have universities. The dictators would survive, too, but widespread reading made their jobs a lot harder.
What, now, of the future, or futures, of reading? It has long been claimed by boosters of reading, especially reading in those subjects usually associated with the liberal arts, that there is a strong connection between the act of reading and greater levels of understanding between people. The inwardness of reading, they argue, especially if it involves the revelation of human character, expands empathetic scope. In the standard version of this pro-reading position, the next rhetorical move is obvious: If online connection is lowering empathy and reading raises it, then — books win! Turn off your computers, dammit, and get thee to a library!
Of course, the most obvious feature of most libraries these days is their rows upon rows of computer stations. But the real problem with this argument is that its premises are dubious, if not outright false. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that exposure to literature reliably expands your moral imagination. Nor do the liberal arts make you a better citizen — a common variant on the basic claim. Nothing is more depressing to those of us who believe in the value of robust critical thought and enhanced ethical imagination than to realize that some students can pass through years of forced ingestion of challenging texts without experiencing a glimmer of either goodness or truth.
There are failures on all sides here. The failures do not, by themselves, diminish the value of liberal-arts education generally, but let us admit that such education does not guarantee good citizens, and also that there are many exemplary citizens who have not attended a single literature class or read a word of Plato. Reading Sense and Sensibility may give you a better appreciation of the joys and sorrows of love, but it need not. You don’t have to be a sociopath to find that prolonged exposure to the minds of fictional others leaves you with just about the same level of regard for real people as before. The station chief in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is the one person in the novel who has read all the banned books. He is given to deft, apposite quotation, and points out gleefully how upsetting it is that books all say different things — an emotion familiar to my first-year philosophy students. Literary exposure has not softened the heart of this villain. On the contrary, reading is the foundation of his subtle psychic violence.
For some, the problem is that the modern novel is so closely associated with bourgeois life, a mode of consciousness that we ought to usher off the historical stage. The very same individualism that came with the spread of literacy has become a global blight, a vast expression of rapacious desires and — yes — narcissism. From this perspective, the current debates about the future of reading are merely the welcome death throes of individualism. The novel form is here transformed, by the likes of Tao Lin, Tom McCarthy, David Mitchell, and Haruki Murakami, into a philosophical battlefield, with the forces of modern middlebrow conformity opposed by those of postmodern “networks of transmission.” Well, maybe. My feeling, as a reader rather than a writer of fiction, is that this is one more inside-baseball debate from which we will all benefit, just as we have from T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace.
My own set of self-serving predictions about the future of reading begins with the belief that long-form reading will be with us as long as there is such a thing as individual human consciousness. That consciousness is a complicated burden. There is stimulation and pleasure in consciousness but also boredom, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, and grief. Books are my friends when nobody else can be; they offer a form of intimacy nothing else does. They do not make me a better person, but they give me respite from the incessant noise of existence. That market will never collapse. In the future, some people will be able to make a living as writers, others won’t. But writing will remain among the cheapest forms of cultural production ever, especially relative to its effects.
We experience selfhood as a story, however haphazard, repetitive, and inconclusive. While the hypothetical narrative of self may be an illusion, it remains a necessary one. This peculiar experience of human consciousness will change. It is already changing. Individualism is neither woven into the fabric of the universe nor strictly necessary for human survival. In 2035, following a determined attempt to sideline it with that centuries-long glut of bourgeois novels, with their biofascist insistence on the importance of families and relationships and whatnot, critical philosophy may triumph as the most popular form of reading in history. But even if that happens, we will continue to argue about all this, just as Socrates and Phaedrus argued the relative merits of reading and speaking more than two millennia ago.