• October 23, 2014

Will the Book Survive Generation Text?

Will the Book Survive Generation Text? 1

Polly Becker for The Chronicle Review

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Polly Becker for The Chronicle Review

Over the next 10 years, scientific experts will be dealing with "extreme weather." No one knows how weird and dangerous it will get.

Moscow already faces Bahrain-like temperatures. Downpours swamp a fifth of Pakistan. President Mohamed Nasheed, of the Maldives, worries enough about future sea levels to hold a cabinet meeting underwater in scuba gear. (Don't miss this on YouTube!)

Parallel thinking should apply to a phenomenon of greater concern to readers here: "extreme academe." Think of it as the hysterical upgrading of ugly visions of the future already found in polite critiques of higher ed.

Back in 2003, for instance, former Harvard President Derek Bok, in Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (Princeton University Press), drilled home the problem capsulized in his subtitle by noting that throughout the 1980s, deans and professors brought him "one proposition after another to exchange some piece or product of Harvard for money—often, quite substantial sums of money."

Though hardly the first to notice the trend—Stanley Aronowitz, in The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (Beacon Press, 2001), produced one prior cri de coeur—Bok, as the highest of high mandarins of academe, legitimized the insight. Now a healthy genre tracks this particular slide toward extreme academe, marked by such fine indictments as Jennifer Washburn's University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education (Basic Books, 2006), and Frank Donoghue's The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Fordham University Press, 2008). By last year's Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (University of Chicago Press, 2009), the downward spiral was such a cliché that sociologist Gaye Tuchman could mine it for laughs as well as an aperçu, with her semidisguised state-university president who's always declaring, "This is a university in transformation."

Other recent scrutinizers of academe perceive related threats. Mary Burgan, a former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, marquees her main fear in her title: Whatever Happened to the Faculty? (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). Harvard English professor and New Yorker staff writer Louis Menand, in The Marketplace of Ideas (W.W. Norton, 2010), sees a partly antiquated 19th-century university system trying to solve 21st-century problems, such as how one adapts "the lecture monologue" to "a generation of students who are accustomed to dealing with multiple information streams in short bursts." Amanda Goodall, in Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should Be Led by Top Scholars (Princeton, 2009), warns that managerial empty suits will destroy the great American university.

Extreme academe, as a vision, ups the ante of such concerns. It adds flash and cynicism to mere trepidation. According to it, college students in 2020 will use plastic cards to open the glass security doors installed at each entrance to campus. On special occasions, the sole tenured faculty member at every institution will be wheeled out, like the stuffed remains of Jeremy Bentham at University College London, for receptions.

Plagiarism, having evolved, with the help of Stanley Fish, from mortal academic sin to mere "breach of disciplinary decorum," will be an elective track, on a par with fiction and poetry, within the creative-writing major. Several great research universities will be led by former Big Ten football coaches. Indeed, by 2020, President Bok's nightmare of the future, shared in his commencement address to Harvard's Class of 1988, may be the standard scenario across the land: corporate logos on syllabi and course materials, ads in the classroom (and presumably above the urinals), commercials during class time, and auctions to the highest bidders of "the last one hundred places" in every entering class.

My own peculiar worry about Academe 2020, offered with less than 20/20 foresight, may seem less catastrophic: the death of the book as object of study, the disappearance of "whole" books as assigned reading. Does that count as a preposterous figment of extreme academe, or is it closer than we think?

I don't mean the already overwrought debate over the crisis of the book as codex—the daily New York Times announcement that electronic readers stand primed to eliminate paper books. (This shift, of course, plays into the problem, since any shrewd publishing type can see how the paper book's demise might make it easier to digitally trim, abridge, and repackage texts in more "appealing" forms than their benighted authors envisaged.) The issue isn't the decline in book sales, though it, too, remains an element of the big picture. I am talking about the growing feeling among humanities professors—intuitive and anecdotal, shared over lunch like an embarrassing tale about a colleague—that for too many of today's undergraduates, reading a whole book, from A to Z, feels like a marathon unfairly imposed on a jogger.

To be fair, their elders increasingly encourage the thought that whole books lack the coolness of whole grains. Three years ago, Weidenfeld & Nicolson launched its Compact Editions series of classics such as Vanity Fair and Moby-Dick. The publisher explained that they'd been "sympathetically edited so that most of them are under 400 pages," but that the cuts "in no way detract from the spirit of the original." Surgery simply rendered such classics less "elitist." Dripping drollery in The Times of London, critic Richard Morrison opined that truth in advertising behooved the publisher to adjust titles as well, perhaps to Vanity Off-Peak Fare, and Mini-Dick.

Any wonder that last year, two cheeky University of Chicago undergrads with literary parents—Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin—published Twitterature (Penguin), boiling down classics of world lit to 140-character bone? Here's their speed-read version of The Epic of Gilgamesh: "@UrukRockCity—Great. That's it. I'm leaving Uruk. My best friend in the world is dead, all because the gods couldn't handle our bromance."

The signs of readerly surrender pop up everywhere. Princeton student Isia Jasiewicz, reviewing a book for Newsweek this summer as an intern, admits in her last paragraph that she bothered to read only the first 10 pages. Linda Nilson, director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness at Clemson University, posts a piece titled, "Getting Students to Do the Reading" on the Web site of the National Education Association, advising: "Look for readings with graphics and pictures that reinforce the text, and pare down the required pages to the essentials. The less reading assigned, the more likely students will do it."

Destructive cultural trends lurk behind the decline of readerly ambition and student stamina. One is the expanding cultural bias in all writerly media toward clipped, hit-friendly brevity—no longer the soul of wit, but metric-driven pith in lieu of wit. Everywhere they turn, but particularly in mainstream, sophisticated venues—where middle-aged fogies desperately seek to stay ahead of the tech curve—young people hear, through the apotheosis of tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates, and sound bites as the core of communication, that short is always smarter and better than long, even though most everyone knows it's usually dumber and worse.

Another cultural trend propelling the possible death of the whole book as assigned reading is the pressurized hawking of interactivity, brought to us by the same media panderers to limited attention spans. It's no longer acceptable for A to listen to B for more than a few minutes before A gets his or her right to respond. High culture, for sure, also bears high responsibility for this, ranging back to Foucault's and Barthes's assaults on the "author," Eco's celebration of the "open work," and a score of other late-20th-century academic authorities questioning why creators of texts should determine where they begin or end as well as what they mean. On street level, we end up with commercial gambits such as Compact Editions. On syllabus level, we await the next generation of professors who will assign just part of Anna Karenina, or the best stretches of Great Expectations, all the while wondering why anyone ever wrote a book longer than John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

A useful text with which to muse on this subject is Robert Darnton's The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (PublicAffairs, 2009). In it, the onetime newspaper reporter, distinguished scholar of the Enlightenment and the history of the book, and director of Harvard's libraries, swings between explanations and concerns about Google Book Search, and how the situation with books today looks in the perspective of history. Many of his observations give pause.

Darnton notices what many other professors also see in young people: "A generation 'born digital' is 'always on,' conversing everywhere on cellphones, tapping out instant messages, and networking in actual or virtual realities. The younger people you pass on the street or sit next to on a bus are simultaneously there and not there. They shake their shoulders and tap their feet to music audible only to them inside the cocoon of their digital systems. They seem to be wired differently from their elders, whose orientation to machines comes from another zone of the unconscious."

Many college-age sorts study their phones, put them away to try to focus on something else—the passing scenery outside the Amtrak train, a magazine, the old-fashioned book they've brought along—then yank the phones back out three or four minutes later and start tapping away again. Reading a book, however, requires concentration, endurance, the ability to disconnect from other connections. You have to be there rather than not there. Hyperwired young people may be making it to age 17 without acquiring that ability, let alone losing it.

Darnton recognizes that the authority of books—those objects to which, NEA studies and other data tell us, the young are not connecting—"derives from a great deal more than the technology that went into them." It comes from the years of research put into them, of revising and recasting sentences, of organizing paragraphs and chapters, of taking the time and space to set out one's evidence and counterevidence, the opinions of others, the context of one's subject, its upshot. Little of that can be done by the essay, let alone the post or tweet.

Darnton's musings intrigue because while few equal him as a lover of traditional books and their importance, he also betrays signs of "silicon syndrome" (compare "Stockholm syndrome"), a susceptibility to mounting assumptions that surround him. Darnton the Head Librarian sounds open to elevating every slight communication to a datum of significant cultural importance. "We are also experimenting," he writes of himself and his Harvard colleagues, "with plans to archive the millions of messages exchanged within the university by e-mail." Leaving aside the legalities, does anyone want to guess how the wheat and chaff divide there?

"Perhaps we suffer," he writes, "from too narrow a notion of publication, something we associate exclusively with professionals who produce journals and books."

Au contraire, the problem of the moment is that we suffer from too broad a notion of publication, applying the concept to every transient expression. The world and scholarship survived centuries—millennia—of not cataloging every comment made by people to one another. Yes, it's a shame we've lost the offhand remarks of Voltaire, what Shakespeare said to friends, and almost everything that might count as an e-mail in ancient Greece and Rome. A shame, too, that we don't have video of the Crucifixion, stills of the Flood, and things like that.

But are we worse for not having archived the ephemera of mankind, for having devoted libraries and syllabi to books—the weightiest, most important, most enduring forms of communication? The old criterion of librarianship and pedagogy was right: Save and study the substantive, don't worry about the insignificant. What will be the impact on future professors, wondering whether to assign whole books to future students, if libraries, of all institutions, start to see the book as merely primus inter pares among acts of communication? It is not a first among equals, because other forms of communication do not equal its weight, its power, its thoroughness.

Yes, we know—what is a book, after all? Anything an editor at a publishing house agrees to put between two covers, or zap to a Kindle/Sony Reader/Nook? Isn't it often truly (when the cachet of the word is put aside) just a thrown-together collection of short pieces stitched together, or a rush job, rather than a sustained, coherent text of 250 to 1,000 pages?

And who says that teaching whole books as whole books makes good sense anyway? Is every word of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, or Darwin's The Origin of Species, really necessary to understand those books? Doesn't Tolstoy run on at times?

Reasonable issues, all. But whatever clever eristic moves you make, there's a problem on the horizon—extreme academe is heading our way. Will professors hold the line? Will they insist that the most distracted generation in history rise to the challenge of reading books, or will future faculty members replace the book with the chapter? Maybe extreme weather and extreme academe will come together. As oceans rise, temperatures soar, electrical grids fail, and smartphones no longer charge, Generation Text may rediscover the real thing.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College.

Comments

1. lost_angeleno - August 29, 2010 at 08:43 pm

A good book, like a good life, takes time to savor. Sometimes a life is compressed into 10 years or fewer. This is a very sad occurrence. Others think their lives are fulsome and complete in 20 years; they are fools. It is the function of elders to disabuse the children of their foolishness, while showing them the riches of the better choices. Introducing them into a good, full life is done in stages. Introducing them to good, rich books is also done in stages. Start with books appropriate to their ages, and gradually build them up. Don't coddle or excuse. Challenge, in a positive way. Each will find their level.

2. english_ivy - August 30, 2010 at 08:21 am

While I live the issues this piece raises, the thing is that when we say "most distracted generation in history" we must question if we are committing the "kids are all right" fallacy. For 1000s of years older generations have lamented the faults of the younger generations, and throughout all those years and lamentations it becomes apparent, often after the older generation has shuffled off, that the younger generation that was SO DIFFERENT was really not that different from that now dead older generation.
Perhaps this is because of efforts like this essay. But I suspect not. Instead, youth is wild, middle age is calculated, and old age brings a nostalgia for what went before. This human live cycle urges us forward AND returns us to where we started. Everything human is a circle. Somehow we always end up where we started, even if it is not the same place, we know, if we look close enough, it kind of is the same place and that we are doing the exact same things we've always done, even if they are completely different they are paradoxically not different at all.

3. dr_rosenrosen - August 30, 2010 at 08:39 am

Count me as a dinosaur who still eschews tech for good ole' books. In my history classroom, all electronic devices must be turned to "silent," with penalties for students who dare to even glance at them. I use a lecture format and throw hundreds of historical terms (w/accompanying dates) at them over the course of the semester. I also assign two whole books (avg 250 pages apiece); dedicated discussion days on the schedule allow us to talk about the readings in detail. Thereafter, they write argumentative, take-home essays on each book. The remainder of their grade comes from in-class essay exams.

This is a required, freshmen-level, gen ed curriculum, and non-major course; my 35 students/per section are principally products of one of the America's worst public school districts....and yet, the bulk of my students thrive. Once they get used to the digital disconnect (this admittedly takes a couple of weeks) they begin to appreciate the rigorous format and the knowledge they gain as a result. I'm not claiming that mine is the best method, only that the "old way" can still be effective--no matter what the EdDs say!

4. dank48 - August 30, 2010 at 08:51 am

"It's no longer acceptable for A to listen to B for more than a few minutes before B gets his or her right to respond."

Actually, it's A who gets to respond to B.

This article is otherwise on the money. A generation devoted to multitasking ends up doing multiple things poorly, including understanding anything with a story line more complex than a limerick's.

5. akafka - August 30, 2010 at 09:29 am

Thanks, dank48 -- E (Editor) has now fixed the problem with A and B, and E apologizes for not catching it earlier. Re spam, The Chronicle's Web team is aware of the issue and working on it. Thanks for your patience.
-Alex, an editor for The Chronicle Review

6. davidzmorris - August 30, 2010 at 10:48 am

Check your facts on the obliquely referenced decline in book sales.

7. justinrace - August 30, 2010 at 11:32 am

You write as though short attention spans and students shirking their homework are recent problems. Fittingly, you largely blame recent technology. But the real problem, unfortunately, is that the great books are only great for a few people. For most they remain inaccessible and downright boring, even when taught by the most charismatic professors.

I've met many very intelligent and talented people who bristled at the idea of reading Tolstoy, and it's not because they're too busy tweeting or updating Facebook. Look at any bestseller list and you'll see it's filled with trash, and I imagine a hundred years ago it was still filled with the trash of that day. It might be noble for you to think that students (of any age, really) should study the classics, but it's wrong to think that they happily did so in the past but now don't have the time or attention span to do so. Some did then, some do now; there were distractions then, there are distractions now. The fact of the matter is that if you care about anything as passionately as you do, you'll see its appeal and its benefits as obvious, and then reason that if people don't agree or care, it's because of some outside force, and not because they simply don't agree and don't care.

I'm on your side: I've read my Tolstoy, my Proust, my Plato. I'm profoundly curious about human nature and continue to examine it from without and within on a daily basis. But if I were to think I could find even a handful of like-minded souls, let alone an entire class, let alone an entire university, let alone an entire generation, then I'd count myself either hopelessly naive or hopelessly idealistic--maybe both.

Keep fighting the good fight, but don't think you'll win. And next time leave Twitter out of it. It's insulting to the greatest minds of the cannon to think they've suddenly lost our attention because of texting and the like.

8. 11159995 - August 30, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Carlin seems to have forgotten that many students of our now older generation took the easy way out by reading classic comic books instead of the real versions. Is what today's students are doing so very different?

The ease and cheapness of photocopying since the 1950s, now supplemented by scanning, has for at least a half century encouraged teachers to assign less than entire works. The sales of paperbacks for course use have been on a steady decline at least since the 1980s.

Is it not ironic that, with people tweeting everywhere, there are now more authors than ever self-publishing books, over 700,000 of them in the U.S. in 2009 alone? Surely, these authors all cherish the hope that their books will be read in their entirety.

The most intense experience of reading a whole book I ever had was in a graduate seminar at Columbia University where Robert Paul Wolff had all of us reading 70 pages of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason each week and preparing a 7-page summary of it. Too long to be merely an outline, but too short to be a paraphrase either, this method required us to comprehend the text fully and render its primary points in our own words. Maybe this is a method that should be used more widely today in teaching other classic works even outside of philosophy?

---Sandy Thatcher

9. dank48 - August 30, 2010 at 04:02 pm

Have I got this straight? We're talking about "college graduates" who hold "bachelors degrees" and who may well never have read a book all the way through?

Perhaps it's the hardening of my arteries or maybe there's something wrong with my vision, but to me it seems there's something wrong with this picture.

10. lizgloyn - August 31, 2010 at 04:25 pm

There have been 'trimmed' editions of classic novels in print since at least the 1950s; I recall my great irritation when I picked up a copy of "Les Miserables" from the 1950s in our university library only to discover it was a 'greatest hits' version. So while Weidenfeld & Nicolson may be resurrecting a bad habit, it's not entirely new.

I'm also sure that complaints about students not doing the reading have been around as long as the university; I used to have the citation but, alas, it's disappeared under a pile of something or other. What I do know is that during our TA orientation last week, new international TAs watched a video warning them that while they might expect students to complete their assigned reading, it was unlikely they would. The video was made in the 1990s - and I am informed that its predecessor, made in the 1980s, included exactly the same warning.

11. batchro - August 31, 2010 at 07:05 pm

I'm a Gen X-age prof, so I kind of fall between the "old school" mentality and "Generation Text" group. I respect what technology enables us to do as learners and thinkers, but I too worry about how the lack of reading negatively impacts the critical thinking skills of today's college students. Early in my classes, it's often all opinion and no context. I have to teach them about critical thinking so that they begin to use it.

I would also direct some of the attention on the conglomerate publishers who mistakenly believe that the only way they can sell "products" is by digitizing books or creating alternatives that will appeal to college students. Filling up textbooks (or electronic databases disguised as books) with a lot of pictures and sidebars models a kind of surface-level reading that does not benefit the student in the long-run.

Alternatively, maybe the handwringing about lack of reading is really all for nothing. Let's say the upper five percent of the college student population reads and learns to think critically. Some would argue that this is the way it's always been. Then, those five percent are relied upon to carry the intellectual load for the nation in the future. I've heard the argument that as long as the very best remain in control, things will remain basically the same as always, which is all most people aspire toward.

That argument is a little too much like living in the world depicted in The Matrix for me, but it is out there.

12. alanvanneman - September 01, 2010 at 07:09 am

Bemoaning the younger generation never goes out of style. When I studied philosophy at Oberlin College in the early sixties, we only read the "interesting" parts of Spinoza's Ethics and Hobbes' Leviathan. How many people, other than specialists, have read the second half of Leviathan, which may be the better half? Dr. Johnson "admitted" that he seldom finished a book. Then, as now, the best students only read what they know their professors want them to read, and skip the rest.

13. efframzimbalistjr - September 01, 2010 at 10:35 am

Woe is me for the by-gone days when everyone read the dictionary and the world was filled with monocle-wearing, tweedy professors. C'mon, you're all intelligent people, how hopelessly repetitive is it to complain about the younger generation's faillings?

Last time I checked young children were making it through six or seven hundred page books and lining up outside bookstores to purchase the latest Harry Potter novels. High literature it might not be, but it goes to show that kids do have the attention span to read something they genuinely find interesting. Perhaps people don't bother to read stuffy old texts becasue they don't enjoy them and they don't help them achieve their goals in life. You can argue all you want about the superiority of Moby Dick to the Twilight series(and I'd agree with you) but you can't say that people aren't reading or that the youth lack an attention span.

14. khesriram - September 01, 2010 at 11:16 am

To a large extent, the author (and many of us) overestimate how much the canonical texts were read in the past, as opposed to contemporary times.

15. raghuvansh1 - September 01, 2010 at 01:16 pm

I donot think book reading is diminishing.Those who are books lover they will read books forever.We must understand one thing very few people read the books in past also. If you give book free till those who are interested they only read the books other through the book in dustbin. If you give money for reading book those who are not interested they accept money and pretend that they will read book but never read.Those who are curious they only read book with any cost.So I think it is futile to discuss this question.

16. dank48 - September 01, 2010 at 02:36 pm

Batchro, #11:

"I've heard the argument that as long as the very best remain in control, things will remain basically the same as always, which is all most people aspire toward."

What on earth would make you think the very best (smartest, best educated, more idealistic, most selfless) have anything whatsoever to do with running things? A hundred years or so ago, James Bryce, an astute observer of America, had a great chapter entitled "Why the Best Men Do Not Go into Politics."

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

17. nathan17 - September 01, 2010 at 03:05 pm

Great article. The question "Will professors hold the line?" is a bit obsolete, though. Whoever they may be as people, or even as intellectuals and citizens, "professors" are a function of thoroughly bureaucratized mass higher education governed by accreditation boards with their agendas du jour and by legislatures and other non-academic entities. They are a function of the student evaluation process, the tenure and promotion process, the demands of service and research, and the absolute imperative not to cause trouble for the bureaucracy (or oneself). One may have a personal sense of duty to do as much as possible for students in the way of actually challenging them and educating them, and sometimes expecting them to read complete books (not infrequently for the first time in their lives), but one cannot push this too far. One's professional/bureaucratic duty is to keep them pacified and agreeable, to cover oneself with careful records and technically sophisticated (i.e. graphical and online) course materials, to secure good student evaluations by letting them have fun in class, by welcoming every uninformed comment they may wish to make, by varying activities to accommodate their clipped attention, by not lecturing too much, and by not expecting them to read too much, especially not complete books. The "professor" imagined in the article is a thing of the past, for better or worse. What is left of that professor survives in the new professor's seizing every possible remaining opportunity to do whatever is possible to awaken students, including perhaps trying to show them how books can transform them, and how developing the ability to give attention can transform them, but these opportunities are increasingly rare, and such goals are rarely supported by the bureaucratic infrastructure around teaching and teaching improvement. It's much easier to keep students happy, even though it can also be exhausting to keep them entertained.The real challenge for the new professor lies in those students who, despite everything, arrive with focused minds, developed attentions, a passion for learning, and an impatience with what is passing for education. It is true that there is little new here--except for the extent to which the natural obstacles to education have been so thoroughly institutionalized in contemporary higher education.

18. jonjermey - September 01, 2010 at 11:19 pm

Well, the 'extreme weather' claim is complete nonsense, and the 'extreme reading' claim may well turn out the same way. How many English students have ever bothered to read their assigned texts in their entirety? If academia is finally waking up to reality it is not a moment too soon.

Students attending high school and university in 2010 are going to be looking for jobs in a world where what matters is no longer what you carry around in your head, but what you can find out when you need it, and how fast. Anyone who really needs to read Moby Dick can absorb it all in three or four days anyway.

Let's face it; no matter how 'great' they are, novels are merely entertainment. It's crazy to treat them as if they are revelations of Biblical significance, no matter how many people it keeps employed -- and the sooner we stop doing it, the better.

19. eldyem - September 02, 2010 at 12:56 am

Reading classic books is great... but unfortunately having read them is not a marketable skill for today's college students. How is Moby Dick supposed to get you a job? That's a huge concern for people who anticipate graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and frighteningly competitive job prospects. As jonjermey said above, what matters most is one's ability to FIND information.

There is a reason people (especially tech-savvy kids) are used to taking in information in bite-sized, 140-word bursts. Everyday we are met with an onslaught of information, including TV shows/ads, billboards, and a plethora of information streams over the Internet. We also have to process information from interpersonal communications like e-mail, text messaging, and social networking. Now add the demands of school: homework, lectures, labs, research projects, and papers. Most students also spend time researching and filling out applications for scholarships, loans, special programs, grad school, etc. Oh, and school is expensive, so take another 20-30 hours out of the week for a part-time job. And if you want to make your resume look good for future employers, you'd better be involved in some extracurricular activities too, like clubs and student organizations. In order to survive all these demands on their time, students MUST learn how to get the gist of whatever they are reading or hearing quickly so they can move on to other things. For what it is worth, I have rarely seen a job posting in recent times that didn't list "ability to multi-task" as a job requirement, regardless of our brains' inability to attend to multiple things at once.

Microbursts of information may not have the elegance of formal literature, but they are more efficient. Few students (though there are some) see the benefit of reading a whole book front to back, even when it is assigned. To them, it is just not a smart use of their time. They want to know what they NEED to know in order to succeed. They are impatient not because they have disdain for learning, but rather because sometimes what they are forced to learn is not practical to them. Reading that which does not apply to one's learning goals is more of a leisure activity.

20. texastextbook - September 02, 2010 at 03:13 am

Most of the greats probably wrote one book at a time, with the truly inspired maintaining jobs while they "wrote." The greatest, like Socrates, would have written nothing at all.

It puts an instructor's demand that the student purchase 12 books for a ten-week course into perspective.

21. jmaisog - September 02, 2010 at 08:35 am

Reminds me of this humorous article from the Onion:
Nation Shudders At Large Block Of Uninterrupted Text
http://www.theonion.com/articles/nation-shudders-at-large-block-of-uninterrupted-te,16932/

22. dank48 - September 02, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Jonjermey says, "Let's face it; no matter how 'great' they are, novels are merely entertainment. It's crazy to treat them as if they are revelations of Biblical significance, no matter how many people it keeps employed -- and the sooner we stop doing it, the better."

Seems to me that the sooner we stop treating Biblical texts as any more significant than novels or any other form of entertainment, the better. The notion that antiquity somehow endows these old tales with veracity yet leaves the Iliad, the Odyssey, Gilgamesh and the rest out there on the ice floe of "mythology" seems very curious to me.

"Religion" and "mythology" (or "superstition") seem to me a lot like "erotica" and "smut"; erotica is pornography one likes, and smut is pornography one does not like. Similarly, religion and myth are indistinguishable except for the matter of which collection of ancient theologico-cosmologico-ethical musings one considers worthy of respect--and which one doesn't.

23. loren_wingblade - September 02, 2010 at 03:42 pm

I am somewhat unsympathetic to this argument. Great books are only great if people want to read them. Most of the great books are about the past, philosophy, or what people thought about something at some point in time. Today's students are not concerned with great ideas of the past or great writing. Who reads Hemmingway or F. Scott Fitgerald today? Students are concerned with jobs, their future, what the world will look like in 20 or 40 years from now. I am a scientist I don't read great books just to read them. I read them if I need to. I took four courses online in bioethics. Here we had to read Aristotle, John Stuart Mill and Kant but it was for a reason. Not just to read Philosophy. Some of you think great books will survive because at the time they were written they had a huge impact on our culture or society. But what is they impact today? People/students need a contex in which to read these works. If not they will sit in libraries gathering dust as well they should.

24. dank48 - September 02, 2010 at 05:11 pm

I think Loren at #24 has provided all the arguments anyone could possibly need in favor of great books, which will, pace Loren, be great whether or not illiterates want to read them.

People who can spell "Hemingway" and "Fitzgerald" sometimes read Hemingway and Fitzgerald, believe it or not, regardless of "they impact today" and with or without "a contex in which to read these works." God knows whether it's people/students or books that will sit in libraries gathering dust as well they should, but does it matter after such a magisterial dismissal of reading?

25. geneve - September 02, 2010 at 06:05 pm

I agree with Justinrace (#7). Every new generation of professors in the last 50 years or so (perhaps longer) has always felt as though the academic apocalypse was upon us, and they have been no less vocal about it.

This isn't to say, of course, that I believe that professors should give up the chase and accept a future of coursepacks made up of photocopied sections from Dickens, Hemmingway, and Kerouac. First of all, to assume that this is what all or even most students want is unfair. As professors and instructors, we're much more likely to notice the students who sit in class texting or who use their laptops to browse their Facebook pages than we are to notice the students who are attentive or using their laptops to take notes. Though anecdotally, and certainly from personal experience, it SEEMS as though students have become worse, in actuality, there's little evidence to suggest that the students who tweet and text their way through class aren't merely the same students who would have slept, doodled or read comics behind their textbooks while in class 20 or 30 years ago. Second, I have seen first-hand the effects of diminishing our expectations in other areas, particularly in writing, and the result hasn't just been a cheapening of academic degrees. Studies have shown that the corporate world is also noticing that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hire university graduates who are able to compose a half-decent memo, let alone an annual report for company stakeholders, and business is suffering for it.

Perhaps it's also time to admit that while a new generation of students is presenting us with a series of challenges, some old and some new, our current generation of professors and instructors is liable to give up too easily and that the fault lies as much with us as it does with the students. Many of us grew up in a time when teaching took a radical turn, and prominent educational psychologists emphasized the importance of nurturing creativity and expression instead of structure and discipline, and I hate to say it, but it shows, and the evidence lies partly in the student behaviours noted in this article.

On a final note, I'd like to briefly address the author's apparent contention with e-readers and say that in my experience, many people (young and old) aren't actually open to e-readers because they like the feeling of reading a printed book. I myself have a Kindle, and while I love reading on it, it has no more taken the place of my printed books than my iPod has taken the place of my cds, radio shows, or records. I love my Kindle, especially since I love to read 2 or 3 books at a time and I can use it to carry thousands of books around with me, but I will never, ever get over the thrill of spending an afternoon in a used bookstore and walking out with a pile of material to dive into over the weekend.

26. karpeeka - September 02, 2010 at 07:09 pm

"There have been 'trimmed' editions of classic novels in print since at least the 1950s; I recall my great irritation when I picked up a copy of "Les Miserables" from the 1950s in our university library only to discover it was a 'greatest hits' version. So while Weidenfeld & Nicolson may be resurrecting a bad habit, it's not entirely new. "

Commenter lizgloyn only got it partly right. In fact, even the almighty Shakespeare stole many plots from condensed & translated versions of the classics. The 'dumbing-down' of literature has existed, well, since literature: there are tons of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance condensations and digests (referred to as 'epitomes') of 'difficult' material.

Seneca's second moral letter condemns readers who flit from book to book and cautions the young scholar to linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, if their words are to be fixed in the mind. "Will the book survive Generation Nero?"

Montaigne in "Of Bookes" complains about not being able to remember what he reads because his attention span has been ruined by scanning through his library's print volumes too discursively (though one suspects he actually relied on his topically indexed commonplace book, not the sources 'themselves,' to compose his essays).

I fear that Prof. Romano may have phoned this one in. To observe that reading habits change with developments in information technology is trivial. To whine about the ignorance of the youngest scholars is a millennia-old cliche. To make such an argument in a forum in which you are guaranteed an eagerly assenting audience--well, "Generation Text" has a word for online pandering of that kind: "circle-jerk."

27. sophox - September 07, 2010 at 02:02 pm

When, in the history of the world, have 50-80% of the population been expected to commit to sustained reading? Is this a consequence of technology, or a factoid produced by increasing demands to send all kids to college? (cf Obama's vision of a future in which ALL students get at least a two-year degree.)

Is it not likely that the same very small segment of the population that read complete books 100 years ago is the same very small segment of the population who do so now? Is it not possible that we imagine a historically different attitude only because more of the population is expected to go to school?

Has this stuff been properly studied? Are control groups available?

28. lettia - September 10, 2010 at 09:29 am

Dear loren_wingblade:

I am 23 and I read Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In what context should they be read? How about in the context of ENJOYING READING?

It's your decision not to read books "just to read them" but please don't project your narrow-minded views onto everyone else.

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