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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 Lynda.com. 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.

 

 

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11 Comments

  1. Jill Blevins wrote:

    I found myself skimming over this article, thus proving your point. Sorry.

    Saturday, 1 October 2011 at 17:21 | Permalink
  2. Jen wrote:

    “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. ”

    This is where I think you make a big leap of logic.

    Who says that people want to learn something serious through any media? Perhaps that’s the problem you’ve identified, rather than reading per se.

    People read blogs, they read graphic novels, they read facebook, some people read texts all the day long. They read what’s fun and interesting. They read stories that are interesting far, far more than those that are serious.

    Saturday, 1 October 2011 at 18:16 | Permalink
  3. Bertrand wrote:

    I agree. However, perhaps for ulterior motives. Multimedia, movies, pop-documentaries, let everyone eat them up. But let’s keep the serious thought and discourse in print. Those willing to make the, “sacrifice”, will seek them out.

    Sunday, 2 October 2011 at 00:23 | Permalink
  4. tompain wrote:

    I found myself longing for a transcript of that video. It was just too boring to listen to.

    Sunday, 2 October 2011 at 03:12 | Permalink
  5. bushidoMicah wrote:

    I found it better to read. I didn’t even watch the video. It looked boring and the title escaped me.

    Let readers be readers and tube heads be idiots, if it’s always been that way. We don’t need to make our societies homogenous.

    Great writing is always the start. But, watching and reading are just two completely different activities. The fact that you get information from both activities doesn’t mean they can be compared like for like. Just walking and talking, you get information from.

    Weak arguments, but interesting. Thanks for the read.

    Sunday, 2 October 2011 at 16:11 | Permalink
  6. Lon Ingram wrote:

    “If you can make symbols then you can invent writing and begin reading.”
    Indeed, and if you can count on your fingers, you can invent calculus. Since the ancients did not do so, clearly they weren’t interested.

    “Most premodern peasants and townsmen couldn’t read and didn’t want to.”
    Oh really? How do you know that? What archeological evidence do you have giving you insight into the mindset and motivations of people dead thousands of years? What response do you have to the theory that “peasants and townsmen” and other such “common folks” couldn’t read because they lacked the financial means to acquire both written works and instruction in how to interpret them?

    “Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read.”
    This claim is not only stunningly unsupported by the ensuing graf of generalizations and rationalizations, it’s also just kinda dumb. The fact that millions of humans *can* read argues pretty strongly against it. Things that humans weren’t evolved to do include breathing underwater, flying under our own power and photosynthesis. Communicating by means of abstract symbols ain’t on that list.

    For the sake of argument, let’s accept your premise that humans don’t like to do things they weren’t “evolved” to do. How then do you explain our love of automobiles? We certainly were not “evolved” to travel at 60 mph; the opportunity to do so postdates reading by several thousands of years – except in the limited (and evolutionarily disadvantageous) case of falling off of a cliff. In spite of this handicap, however, we seem to find driving pretty darn pleasurable and useful.

    The truth is that “common folks” *do* read, constantly and voraciously. One can find magazine stands in every Wal-Mart, truck stop and radical bookstore in Iowa. What you seem to object to is that they just won’t read the things that *you* would prefer them to, which really is a damn shame.

    Perhaps you and your students could produce a video set to rap music and narrated by a popular NASCAR driver that explains to the “common folks” just how puerile and worthless their interests are. Be sure to use small words and lots of pictures.

    Tuesday, 4 October 2011 at 06:45 | Permalink
  7. Jessica wrote:

    Mr. Poe, you presented a strong argument, but I have to disagree. Please see my response to your post here: http://modernbibliophile.blogspot.com/

    Saturday, 22 October 2011 at 23:20 | Permalink
  8. Donal wrote:

    I also have a couple of issues with the leaps of logic the author makes. But first, a brief history of literacy that doesn’t include even a mention of the printing press and translation of the bible into lingua franca is missing out of 2 main drivers. However, my main bone of contention is that the problem is the medium and not the message. I must disagree. There are plenty of “serious” (whatever that is) TV and audio available already. Check your local listings (and then check the ratings to see how they compare to America’s Funniest Home Videos etc) The point I believe is that consuming information a) takes time and b) takes effort. Two things that most people today are unwilling to expend without a guaranteed pay off at the end. Does reading create a person who can think, and therefore consume “serious” information, or does a thinker seek out reading and info? I think that’s the real question. This article SHOULD be about how the reading that is done has completely changed and so our skillset for consuming text should be updated/changed (as it probably already is).

    Thursday, 17 November 2011 at 13:37 | Permalink
  9. My father was a farmer. He was merely literate to read newspapers. However he used to read each and every line of the paper until he died in 1971. Although the article is well written I doubt its truthfulness as people like my father before the advent of visual media there was no doubt about reading. Let us enquire.

    Sunday, 15 January 2012 at 16:47 | Permalink
  10. Different media do different things, and audio and video cannot really be yoked to do all the work of a written text.

    In reality, a Youtube video or podcast only go so far, and they cannot really substitute for writing in terms of being information carriers. Admittedly, I do listen to Poe’s “New Books in History” podcast, because it gives me something intelligent to listen to in the car and when walking around the park with my iPod and headphones. But every time I hear something that I want to note, annotate or bookmark, I can’t. I have to remember to write down my thoughts when I get back to my computer.

    This is the main point: the codex book (and digital technologies that partly imitate and further improve on the codex, like an HTML webpage or PDF file) is really the greatest invention when it comes to storing information. It’s instant access: you can flip to a page and find the exact sentence containing a useful piece of information. Try doing that so easily with a Youtube video or MP3 file: it will be much more frustrating to locate a particular passage, and it will certainly be impossible to annotate the speaker’s thoughts without using expensive software.

    Wednesday, 1 February 2012 at 03:24 | Permalink
  11. Katy 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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