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Death to the Reading Class.

By Marshall Poe.

WE ARE THE READING CLASS—people who hold degrees from famous universities; people who write, edit, and publish texts for a living; people who teach, research, and otherwise do “intellectual” work; people who make up a good portion of the cultural elite in the developed world. Though we are all different, we are united by one thing: we love reading. We do it all the time: before work, at work, after work, and often late into the night when we should be sleeping. We are propagandists for reading. We tell everyone who will listen that reading is beneficial, that one should read often, that text is intrinsically better than other media. Reading, we confidently say, improves us, enlightens us, and entertains us. It is the very foundation of civilization. We know the value of reading because it was our ticket into the aforementioned cultural elite. We read well in school and after, and we were rewarded handsomely for doing so. We love reading so much that it is hard for us to imagine anyone not wanting to do it.

The hard truth, however, is that most people don’t want to read and, therefore, don’t read. The evidence on this score is clear: the average American reads for about fifteen minutes a day and almost never reads a book for pleasure. We of the Reading Class see this as a significant “problem,” something to be fixed so the republic will not collapse under the weight its citizens’ illiteracy. So we have tried to solve the reading “problem” by removing the most obvious impediments to reading: we taught everyone to read; we printed millions upon millions of books; and we made those books practically free in libraries. And so the barriers fell: now nearly everyone in the developed world is literate, there is plenty to read, and reading material is dirt cheap. But still people don’t read. Why? The obvious answer—though one that is difficult for us to admit—is that most people don’t like to read.

IN FACT THEY NEVER have. Humans achieved their modern form about 180,000 years ago; for 175,000 of those years they never wrote or read anything. About 40,000 years ago, humans began to make symbols, things like erotic figurines and wall paintings. If you can make symbols then you can invent writing and begin reading. Yet Paleolithic humans didn’t do either of these things. Some 5,000 years ago, however, a group of clever Near Easterners started to write. They did not, however, start to read in anything like our sense. Mesopotamian texts are essentially lists, and lists generally do not make good reading. Happily (at least for those of us in the Reading Class), some Mesopotamian had the bright idea to write down a few good stories. Thus “literature” was born. It did not, however, thrive. There was no great explosion of readers over the next several millennia. Most premodern peasants and townsmen couldn’t read and didn’t want to. For them, reading was useless. Some secular elites could read, but they didn’t because they considered reading infra dig. For them, reading was something servile people did. Only clerics read regularly (though perhaps often without comprehension), largely because their faith told them to. For them, reading was salvation.

Most people successfully avoided reading until about 300 years ago. It was about then that Western European priests and princes decided that everyone should be taught to read. These literacy-loving types tried various schemes to make common folks literate; the most effective of these, however, was naked coercion. By the nineteenth century, churches and states all over Europe and North America were forcing parents to send their kids to school to learn to read (inter alia). If said parents refused to do so, then they might well get in deep trouble. So it happened that by the early twentieth century most people in Western Europe and North America could read. They had no choice in the matter. They still don’t.

Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read. Note that we have no reading organs: our eyes and brains were made for watching, not for decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets. To prepare our eyes and brains for reading, we must rewire them. This process takes years of hard work to accomplish, and some people never accomplish it all. Moreover, even after you’ve learned to read, you probably won’t find reading to be very much fun. It consumes all of your attention, requires active thought, and makes your eyes hurt. For most people, then, reading is naturally hard and, therefore, something to be avoided if at all possible.

THE FACT THAT PEOPLE don’t like to read may trouble many of us in the Reading Class, but it shouldn’t. For in truth, we have misidentified the “problem” facing us: it is not the much-bemoaned reading gap, but rather a seldom-mentioned knowledge gap. Though it is immodest to say, we readers genuinely know more than those who do not read. Thus we are usually able to make better-informed decisions than non-readers can. If we lived in an aristocracy of readers, this maldistribution of knowledge might be acceptable. But we don’t; rather, we live in a democracy (if we are lucky). In a democracy, the people – readers and non-readers alike – decide. Thus we would like all citizens to be knowledgeable so that they can make well-informed decisions about our common affairs. This has been a central goal of the Reading Class since the literacy-loving Enlightenment. We failed to achieve said goal, first, because for much of the past two hundred years we had no choice but to use text to enlighten the masses (a poor tool for the job) and, second, we stubbornly insisted on using text even when other options were available (like radio and TV). We did not realize that for us text was magical, while for everyone else it was just another one of those things you are supposed to do but don’t because it’s a drag.

If we in the Reading Class want to teach the the reading-averse public more effectively than we have in the past, we must rid ourselves of our reading fetish and admit that we’ve been falling down on the job. Once we take this painful step, then a number of interesting options for closing the knowledge gap become available. The most promising of these options is using audio and video to share what we know with the public at large. Audio-visual media have many advantages over text. We have no reading organs, but we do have watching and listening organs. We have to laboriously learn to read, but we are born with the ability to watch and listen. We don’t find reading terribly pleasant, but we do find watching and listening generally enjoyable. If you doubt that people strongly prefer watching and listening over reading, consider this: for the past half century books and television have been competing for people’s attention. We all had (and have) a choice: read a book or watch/listen to the tube. The results of this “natural experiment” are in: people would much rather watch/listen than read. This is why Americans sit in front of the television for three hours a day, while they read for only a tiny fraction of that time.

We need to face facts: people do not want to read, they want to watch and listen. Our task, then, is to give them something serious to watch and listen to, something that conveys the richness and complexity of our written work in pictures and sounds. The good news is that we can easily do this. Ten years ago it was impossible for, say, an academic to produce and distribute an audio or video program: the equipment cost too much; the skills were out-of-reach; and broadcasting was impossible. But things have changed. Today any lecturer can produce and distribute high quality audio and video programs. Most scholars have the equipment on their desks (that is, a PC). The software is dead simple and inexpensive. And the shows themselves can be distributed the world over on the Internet for almost nothing.

I KNOW THIS TO be true because I’ve done it. Here are two examples. The first is New Books in History, an author-interview podcast featuring historians with new books. Aside from the computer, the total hardware and software start-up costs were roughly $300. It took me no time to learn the software thanks to some handy on-line tutorials available on Today New Books in History has a large international audience. The “new books” model has proved so successful that I created the New Books Network, a consortium of 80 author-interview podcasts in 80 fields. (By the way, you may be wondering why someone who says nobody is going to read serious books started a set of podcasts about serious books. Wonder not, for I did no such thing. The “new books” podcasts are not about serious books; they are about the ideas trapped in those serious, and seriously un-read, books. Books imprison ideas; the “new books” podcasts set them free.)

The second example I’d like to bring to your attention is Mechanical Icon, a collection of around 200 historical video essays created by me and my students. Again, the cost were low and the software easy to learn. Over the past two years, the videos on Mechanical Icon’s YouTube channel have been viewed over 400,000 times. Here’s the introduction to the idea:


Reading has served the Reading Class very well for several thousand years. It brought us knowledge, beauty, wealth, and power. Naturally, we are hesitant to give it up. And of course we shouldn’t; text is still very valuable in many contexts. Nevertheless, we must allow audio-visual media to join text as a means of public enlightenment.

So I say, “Death to the Reading Class! Long live the Multimedia Class!”

Marshall Poe is Professor of History at the University of Iowa, the host of New Books in History, the editor-in-chief of the New Books Network, a former writer and editor for the Atlantic Monthly, and the author of A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (Cambridge, 2010), among other books. In his spare time (of which he has none), he likes to read.

More on this topic in The Fortnightly: The Production and Life of Books by C. Kegan Paul.



One Comment

  1. wrote:

    I see other people have already picked up on the omission of the printing press, and the evolutionary psychology stuff, so I’ll just say “what they said” on that, but also there’s one point I wanted to make that they haven’t.

    For many people, a video or audio file is no good. Either because they still have slow or limited connections to the internet, or because they have problems hearing. Unless every video is accompanied by a transcript, it excludes a large number of people who need the words written down. I’ve done a bit of voluntary work transcribing video talks, and can tell you it takes a long time to do – my current speed is about an hour and a half to transcribe 10 minutes, although I hope to get down to an hour.

    Tuesday, 2 October 2012 at 06:59 | Permalink

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