Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Unbearable Lightness of Reading

by Rosemary Arno

I stumbled out of the car disoriented and unsure where I was -- middle America or Czechoslovakia

In the eighth grade, some boy I thought was a Greek god told me I was fat. So I went to Japan.

That is, I locked myself in my bedroom with a novel whose title I forgot years ago along with the name of the rude Greek god. It was about a doomed interracial love affair. I dove into it so deeply that 300-some pages later I was whole again.

Two years ago I had to drive a stultifying 1,200 miles across the boring middle of the country, so for company I rented the audiobook version of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." At gas stations and fast food stops for two days I stumbled out of the car disoriented and unsure where I was -- middle America or Czechoslovakia -- or in what decade.

Then last year I disappeared into "The Stand," Stephen King's opus about a post-epidemic world. For days I became one of his characters, actually thinking about what clothes I'd take from abandoned homes of dead friends and how much easier commuting would be with those fellow motorists around me all rotting in the aftermath of the flu.

My sisters and I grew up in a wintry clime where a book, hot chocolate and a blanket were charms. Reading was the only "sport" that ever interested me, which left me vulnerable to the eighth-grade bullies. First my father and then my husband complained that I read through dinner; my children teased me as a dork for keeping a reading diary, filled with favorite quotes and new vocabulary.

We've abandoned reading for e-mail and home pages, CD-ROM collections of knowledge

I never really met anyone who understood -- much less beautifully articulated -- what it meant to read until I read Sven Birkerts' book, "The Gutenberg Elegies, The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age" (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994, 230 pgs, $12.50 paper). And the main message of that book is that we are abandoning reading.

Or we already have. We've given it up for e-mail and home pages on the World Wide Web and CD-ROM collections of knowledge. As surely as the printing press once threw griots worldwide into unemployment, computers now are rendering books obsolete. Birkerts isn't hoodwinked by the assuring little statistics we book-lovers use to console ourselves. More books are being sold today than ever? Not in the range of topics, not in the depth of subject matter that publishers once embraced.

Just imagine James Joyce finding a publisher today. "It's a little obscure here." And, "Are these really English words?"

Oh sure, this computerized new "Age of Information" comes with plenty of advantages. Even little children are globally aware, can multi-task, and are open to multiple and unexpected new experiences. But they have such short attention spans -- they don't really believe in institutions all that much. They have little sense of place, little sense of a collective future. This is scary stuff.

Birkerts talks about teaching a Short Story class in which students react dully to Henry James. They don't get it, they complain. And their teacher realizes it isn't James' vocabulary or his syntax causing the trouble: it's the whole thing. All the beliefs and values James captures.

"Our entire collective subjective history -- the soul of our societal body -- is encoded in print," says the author who is a book critic and a former bookseller. "I'm not talking about facts and information here, but about ... the expressions that tell us who we are and who we have been, that are the record of individuals living in different epochs..."

What will it mean not to read except off of a screen?

Birkert glimpses the implications of the move from print to electronic order in his own 4-year-old daughter, who doesn't just hear her parents read Beauty and the Beast, she sees the movie, and the home video after that, multiple times, and she wears clothes imprinted with Beauty and goes to a fast-food joint for toy Beasts.

"I wonder," says Birkert, the unrepentant Book-lover, "what tale or rhyme or private fantasy will be able to compete with the high-powered rendition from Hollywood's top talents. Is her imagination being awakened, or stultified ...?"

What about our cultural imagination? Also headed for stultification?. Birkert worries that in an age awash in information and data and the cool technologies to manipulate it all, we are losing "depth" the thing Book-lovers revered as wisdom. "The knowing not of facts but of truths about human nature and the processes of life."

What will it mean not to read except off of a screen?

Something bad, Birkert makes me think. If I can open the pages of a book and gradually let loose of my own life and be transported into some writer-created time and place, that in return I make part of my consciousness, then maybe I need to do it.

My kids, I fear, are more likely to lose themselves in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. "Fewer and fewer people, it seems, have the leisure or the inclination to undertake it. And true reading is hard. Unless we are practiced, we do not just crack the covers and slip into an alternate world. We do not get swept up as readily as we might be by the big-screen excitements of film. But if we do read perserveringly we make available to ourselves, in a most portable form, an ulterior existence," this compelling author tells us.

Birkert's own book is unlikely to reach the audience who may most need it. It's not on disc and it's hard reading. (A Readability Ease test by the computer on which this review was written shows that with 19.5 words in a typical sentence, Birkert's dense work requires at least two years of college to comprehend.)

Rosemary Armao writes and lives in Columbia, Missouri, and is Executive Director of IRE Journal, the publication of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Association.

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1996 (

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