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Writing Across the Curriculum

 

Holloway Hall

I Don't Read Books
Robert Bleil
English Department


As a teenager, I worked on a bookmobile; during my college years, I clerked and shelved books at two campus libraries; after college, I became an academic librarian and earned a Ph.D. in English, but I haven’t read a book in years. Sure, I work with books every day: I mark the pages, critique the arguments, analyze characters, map plots, and try to help students create knowledge out of the data, information, and experiences that they find in books, but I don’t read them. I troll them. My brain has been rewired.

A generation ago, I was an omnivorous reader who juggled several books at a time. From fiction to non-fiction, from philosophy to the fine arts, and from history to mystery, my library was a dukedom large enough to satisfy my insatiable curiosity. And then, mysteriously, it happened. After a couple of years my books began to gather dust almost as soon as I brought them into the house. In frustration, I blamed my work—academic librarianship leaves little time to celebrate words—but even after I left my managerial post for classroom teaching, my love for reading remains only a memory. In the last ten years I have not picked up a book without two tools at hand: a six-inch flexible ruler and a red, fine-point, pen. With these tools I mine books for data and I mark passages for future recovery, but the private conversations between author and reader than once sated my quest for knowledge have fallen silent.

Fortunately, I don’t seem to be alone. According to recent work by Nicholas Carr, I belong to an ever growing segment of the population whose habits of information consumption have changed dramatically as we began to ingest more and more data online. It turns out that learning to read isn’t like walking or talking, which, baring a traumatic injury or illness, is part of our genetic makeup. Instead, reading is a learned activity. As I learned to read online, I began to forget how to read books. Apparently, reading online changes not only the way we consume information, but the way in which we think.

It is a coincidence that my professional life parallels the growth in digital consumption, but it is profoundly telling. Retailing giant Amazon.com sold its first book in July 1995, about six weeks before I entered my graduate program in library science, and the New York Times went online about a year later, as I prepared to take my first professional job as a librarian. So, for the last fifteen years I’ve turned to the Internet for more and more of my daily allotment of words. As I’ve consumed more and more words online, reading a book has become stressful, tedious, and frustrating; reading used to be a gateway to other lives and other worlds, but now I cannot read a page without distraction.

The good news is that I am learning to read books again, but while I take the time to reacquaint myself with the printed word, I’m trying to use what I’m learning to help my students. Because their lives are roughly contiguous with the lifespan of the World Wide Web, it is entirely possible my expectations for their writing may be as unnatural to them as texting seems to me. For a generation who learned to read online, the arguments contained in textbooks and the conversations found in literature are written in a form that they never learned to understand. It is too early to make predictions about the clash of these two cultures, but for now, I’m enjoying the new sounds and new ideas, and I’m trying to be patient with my students. As for my books, they’ll be waiting for my return.
 

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