How the internet saved reading

by Jeff McMahon on February 26, 2011

Last week when my friend David Alm published his lament of digital publishing in these pages, I happened to be writing an introduction for a visiting writer. I recognized in my draft a soft rebuttal to David’s post, but I decided it had to complete its original mission before I could post it. This introduction could be trimmed into a more concise response to David, but because that visiting writer, Dana Goldstein, is a living example of the reason more Americans than ever are reading, I’ve left her introduction at the conclusion of this post. You should meet her:

Image of a book and an Amazon Kindle reader.I’ve been worried that universities would be the last to know.

Universities select and value faculty based in part on the publication of articles and books on paper. And many universities still teach students to write primarily for those media, the media of the printing press, a 15th Century technology.

Meanwhile:

• More than half of all U.S. adults (53 percent) participate in the arts through electronic or digital media, according to a 2008 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts. 2008 was a long time ago in internet time, so expect these numbers to be more striking today.

• For every type of arts performance… other than theater… adults are more likely to participate through electronic media than to attend events in person. So concerts, ballets, operas, dance—most Americans attend online.

When it comes to literature,

• 21 percent of Americans either read or listen to novels, short stories or poems online. That’s 46 million readers of online poetry and fiction, just in the U.S.

And twice that number,

• 42 percent, read non-fiction online: magazine articles, essays, or blogs. That’s 93 million Americans.

Reading on the Rise

While one branch of the NEA was conducting this study of the arts, another branch of the NEA was conducting a study of reading. It made a startling find, what NEA Chairman Dana Gioia called “a significant turning point in recent American cultural history.”

“For the first time in over a quarter-century, our survey shows that literary reading has risen among adult Americans. After decades of declining trends, there has been a decisive and unambiguous increase among virtually every group measured in this comprehensive national survey.”

All of the NEA’s prior studies of reading, for 25 years, had shown declines.

When it came time to explain the results, the authors of the NEA Reading Study could only speculate.

“The impressive new survey results raise an obvious question: what happened in the past six years to revitalize American literary reading? There is no statistical answer to this question. The NEA survey does not identify the causes either for adult reading or for changes in reading behavior.”

Follow ing that disclaimer, though, the study noted that a slight increase in book reading could not explain the results, but that there had been a sharp increase in young people reading online.

And about that slight increase in book reading…. It occurred among people who read online. As if reading online were leading readers to books.

[Founded in 2003, the first year of the most recent NEA study, Contrary went from zero to 2.6 million hits per year by the study's final year: 2008. In 2010, it drew 3.5 million hits.]

Power to the People

The changes have been most dramatic in journalism, of course, where we know that the overwhelming majority of Americans (92 percent) now use multiple platforms to get their news—they use television, the web, their mobile phones, the radio, and still the occasional newspaper. This is according to a survey released last year by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Television news is number one in that study. Internet news sources come next.

More telling is that more a third of Americans (37 percent), have participated in journalism by commenting on, disseminating, or covering stories themselves.

I’ve seen writers accustomed to publishing on paper unable to hold readers who can click away at will, and I’ve seen paper writers lose their composure when confronted with readers who are empowered to respond.

But we still love paper, don’t we? Most of us? and we love the writers who write on it. We don’t want paper to go away, as long as it’ s recycled paper. We love how it feels and how it folds. We love the smell of ink and the musty aroma of used bookstores.

That lovable world can feel terribly still, though, like a pond, once we’ve waded into the rushing stream of online publishing, where hundreds of millions of writers are publishing and interacting every day.

But we remain fond of that pond, most of us.

So when we selected this year’s Emerging Writer in Creative Non-Fiction, we looked for someone who excelled in both realms, not only in the traditional ink and paper media but especially in the dynamic new world of online publishing.

Meet Dana Goldstein

Finding a writer who could swim in both pond and stream was not at all difficult. A few came to mind, but none more immediately or prominently than Dana Goldstein.

Mugshot of Dana Goldstein

Dana Goldstein

The arc of Dana’s still young career, across the chaos of this media upheaval, yet unimpeded by it, is a model of navigation for aspiring writers.

She’s written for The Nation and Businessweek, but also for Slate and for The Daily Beast, where she served as an associate editor.

The Daily Beast, which you may have heard recently merged with Newsweek, is the online platform where I came to know Dana’s diligent and expert coverage of education.

People to whom the internet is still foreign have tended to judge it rather bizarrely as if its contents are of uniform quality. But the internet is no more consistent than print. There is excellence, and there is the less-than-excellent.

Remember that twice as many online readers read non-fiction as read poetry and fiction. I suspect that happens because such a competitive forum—where some other text is always just a click away—lends itself best to forms of prose that reveal their intentions quickly—the expository, the argumentative, the journalistic.

What floats atop the internet, above the less-than-excellent crowd, is substantive content, expertly researched, effectively and elegantly expressed… and cogently argued.

Those are qualities at which Dana Goldstein excels.

She grew up in Ossining, New York, alongside the Hudson River.

I mention that because she writes most personally about going to school in Ossining, where her passion for her topic took root. In her career she has written frequently on women’s issues, public health, and American politics, but there’s a deep interest and fierce clarity to her work on education:

“I became an education writer in large part, because I attended the public schools in Ossining, New York. Due to a unique integration/busing program that has been maintained throughout the decades, even as other districts reverted to segregated neighborhood schools, the district is currently 39 percent Hispanic, 38 percent white, 18 percent black, and 5 percent Asian. About a third of students are eligible for reduced-price or free lunch.

“So day after day for the 13 most formative years of my life, I (and every other kid in the Ossining schools) saw up close the achievement gap between middle class, mostly white students and everyone else, and the ways in which the school system attempted to fight the problem while, in some cases, exacerbating it.”

After Ossining High School, Dana attended Brown University, where she studied European history, and following a year in Paris and four in Washington D.C., she lives in Brooklyn.

She’s a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University, spending this academic year as a writer at large there, studying the Obama Administration’s education policy with typical intensity, and contributing to national publications on education policy, on schools, on teachers, on children, and on poverty.

Please welcome Dana Goldstein.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

David Alm February 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

Wonderful introduction of Dana and a compelling defense of online content, Jeff. However, I didn’t mean for my post to suggest that people don’t or will not read anymore. Clearly, the proliferation of devices and increased methods of getting content in readers’ hands is aiding the act of reading in its basic form. But what Heffernan writes about, and which I agree with, is the “loss” we experience from the diminishment of certain formats, i.e., non-digital formats.

That loss is not quantifiable, but more qualitative. The experience of reading online is different from reading in print. No more used book stores. No more going over to a friend’s house for dinner and perusing his bookshelf, gaining an intimate insight into who he is and what has shaped his mind over the years. No more sharing books among friends, as a kind of social currency. No more marginalia from decades past that provide a glimpse into another reader’s experience with the very text you’re now holding.

I don’t mean to fetishize objects, but I do believe that we’re missing something when we consume everything from movies to novels to academic essays on the same digital screens. I can vividly remember where I was sitting when I read almost each book on my bookshelf. Sometimes those memories are decades old, but they’re jogged and brought back to vivid recollection every time I look at the book to which they are attached.

This, in my opinion, is something we’re losing, and even though the technology might be from the 15th Century, does that mean it’s obsolete? The same could be said of the piano, or the guitar, or the paintbrush. Does their age render those technologies obsolete too?

Reply

Jeff McMahon February 26, 2011 at 10:43 am

Thank you, David, for the quick and bracing reply. But let’s stick to what we actually said. I didn’t say 15th Century technologies were obsolete, and you did say digital technology was ruining reading, and that it offers a bleak outlook on thought, education, and human experience too.

In fact digital publishing appears to be responsible for reversing a decline in book reading, and in literary reading more generally, and I think it’s enhancing those other realms as well.

I also feel nostalgic for the vanishing ways, but I think it’s important we recognize our nostalgia for what it is.

As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more in agreement with H.L. Mencken, who said:

“As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.”

Mencken, when he wrote that, could at least use the present tense. Now it was the life of kings.

It really won’t ever again be the way it was in… when exactly? I’ve been in journalism for 27 years and I can’t remember a moment when it was not dying. It never really was the way we remember it. It was always the life of paupers. And it wasn’t ever better than what we have now, nor better than what is emerging, except from a limited perspective for a chosen few.

We’ve lost a particular funding model for a messy medium, the newspaper, and we’ve lost the luxury of periodic (rather than constant) deadlines. But we’ve also lost our dependence on that funding model, which was always corrupt, and we’ve lost the power to throw stones while avoiding scrutiny, and to ignore upset readers and sources. Democracy and accountability, virtues in journalism, are stronger than ever.

I think there is much more gain than loss from new media. The losses tend to be quaint, the gains amazing.

I don’t think mechanically reproduced books will disappear, at least not for a long time. They may become more boutique, which will enhance their appeal amongst those who enjoy collecting them, pondering them on the shelves, and feeling nostalgic for idealized times of yore. I came to this position thanks in part to a facebook response from my friend Karen Nagy on my post about the University of Chicago’s new Mansueto Library. She said:

“I don’t think we’re at an “either/or” moment quite yet. We’ll likely be in “both/and” land for a good while longer if for no other reason than it would take huge resources to digitize all of the knowledge contained in existing books and other paper-based archival materials. So as someone who savors fine paper, writes with a fountain pen, and loves the physical, tactile qualities of books, to say nothing of the amazing book arts of the past and today, I’m somewhat comforted by that! Having said that, I like the digital world a lot too! The immediacy of information is quite wonderful. Last week when waiting for a concert to begin, the couple next to me were musing about exactly where Moravia was. i was able to pull out my iphone and get to a historical map of Europe in the late 18th century in less than a minute. Can’t beat that! So I’m quite happy to live in this “both/and” world.”

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