Helen and Teacher

Helen and Teacher
The Story of my Life

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How we read Changes Faces

From the newsletters of one of my alma maters; the changing face of reading.  How do you read?

The Changing Face of Reading

Tonight, when you curl up with your bedtime story of choice, will the glow

of a Kindle illuminate your sleepy face? In the morning, when you rise to

apprise yourself of the world’s happenings, will you do so via an iPad, laptop,

or smartphone? Will your day be punctuated by emailed communiqués from

friends, family, and colleagues? One thing is certain: Reading isn’t what it used

to be. Over the last thousand years, the texts themselves, and the ways in which

we read them, have undergone a succession of thrilling transformations.

Of course, long before books, there were stories that spilled not from pens

but from human throats. The first form of “reading” was a synthesis of listening

and talking, an oral tradition perfected by indigenous cultures around the world,

and still practiced by people everywhere.

Even with the advent of alphabets and the practice of writing, an emphasis

on the human voice remained; this concern with the sound of words was a

notable characteristic of some medieval literature. “During the Middle Ages

in England,” explains Professor Kathy Lavezzo, “a lot of vernacular literature

was written in alliterative form and therefore intended to be read aloud before

an audience. In some of this literature, such as the

Alliterative Morte Arthure (c.

1400), the author seems so excited about alliteration that at times he/she makes
up words for the sake of consonance and at the expense of coherence. In this

case, reading is about the sheer enjoyment of alliteration.”

In the early modern period, readers were less likely to recite, and more

likely to write; the act of reading was inextricably tied to that of putting

words on a page. “In the Renaissance,” says Professor Adam Hooks, “readers

were trained to encounter a text with a pen in hand, in order to mark

up—and hence actively engage with—the text. Simple reading alone was not

sufficient; the proper scholarly reader needed to actively use the text, taking

the time to fully comprehend its meanings and

implications. Reading was also aimed at some

practical or intellectual goal: a used text was

inevitably incorporated into one’s own writing.”

Consequently, a blank—or “commonplace”—book,

Hooks explains, “was an indispensable tool for the

Renaissance reader: here quotations from various

sources could be collected, so that they could be

retrieved and used at some later point.”

This brings to mind the comparatively simple

act of “bookmarking” a webpage. Today, texts

are portable, downloadable, listenable, copy- and

paste-able, and can be discarded and replaced with

the quickness of a mouse click. We see them on

displays as wee as two square inches and as wide as seventy feet—the width of

a movie theater screen, which, today’s English majors know, can be “read” as

readily as a book.

The act of reading no longer requires the presence of words—be they spoken

or printed—at all. Photography, film, television, the Internet, and an assortment

of gadgets ensure that we are swimming in images, all of which serve as fodder

for a thoroughly modern kind of reading. Today’s most avid readers and critical

thinkers realize that every picture really does tell a story. “The ability to ‘read’

an image,” says Professor Miriam Thaggert, “as well as a literary text, shapes the

face of reading now—to analyze the composition of a photograph with as much

attention as we examine the structure of a narrative. Reading now recognizes the

visually-inflected world we live in and studies how image and text work together

to shape our world.” Students in English courses such as

Popular Culture and

Everyday Life in the U.S.

, Topics in Film and Literature, and New Media Poetics learn

this. Meanwhile, the rest of us can learn by watching them.

“We learn a great deal about the future of reading by observing young

people—what and how they read, with which technologies, and as part of what

media cultures,” notes Professor Stephen Voyce. “We are told that manic

tweeting, text walking, and the chronic facebook updater fill the world with

ephemeral, disposable language. Yet, one finds a handy riposte to this version of

things in their dedication to Harry Potter novels and video games whose quests

take months to complete. So it would seem the so-called Millennials love extremes,

reveling in a seven-part epic whose vast symbolic arena echoes Homer’s imaginative

universe, whilst taking joy in Twitter’s cheeky 140-character restriction.”

Today’s young readers both keep pace with and perpetuate reading’s

ongoing evolution. “The young have no problems moving between radically

different media and border-blurring genres,” says Voyce. “I see in my students a

generation swinging wildly from that jungle gym of language we used to call the


If yesterday’s avant-garde is today’s conventional reality, tomorrow’s reading

practices will only further stretch our collective imagination, as well as our

capacity for invention. What will abide, however, in spite of reading’s perpetually

changing face, is the love of words and the stories they shape—the very human

craving for both true and invented tales that will last as long as we do.

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