Work in the Digital Age

The Spring 2016 issue of the Hedgehog Review focuses on “Work in the Precarious Economy.” It includes essays on the use of temps and consultants, the changing (declining) status of workers, disruptions to the traditional or accepted ideas about work, the changing notion of vocation, the romanticizing of certain kinds of work, the future of professions, the construction of careers, and vocational education. They provide a lot to think about.

This is a useful set of readings for individuals laboring in the academy and in fields being supported by it. Howard Gardner’s essay, “Is There a Future for the Professions? An Interim Verdict,” is especially important (at least to me). Gardner, a leading educational and cognition expert and prolific author, wrestles with this question by examining his own career and experiences. He concentrates on two events – economic and technological – to explore the shifting fortunes of the role of professions. Gardner is not optimistic: “It’s high time that those of us who continue to value the professions reinvigorate and, as necessary, reinvent the profession” (p. 86).

Just within the past month, before discovering this and the accompanying essays, I finished a conference paper, yet to be presented, that mirrors some of the issues considered in this publication. Here is the abstract of my paper, “Is Professionalism Still an Acceptable Goal for Archivists in the Global Digital Society?”

In this paper I revisit my 1986 essay, “Professionalism and Archivists in the United States/” American Archivist 49 (Summer 1986): 229-247, drawing upon sociological models of the traits and characteristics of professions as a means of drafting an agenda for developing the community of archivists and their status within society. Written in the midst of an intense period of professional planning and self-scrutiny, this article presented the normal call for improved disciplinary knowledge, education, and public awareness. However, in the thirty years since, with the emerging digital society, disciplinary convergence, increased cultural sensitivities and self-awareness, growing community and indigenous archives, and networked social media, does such a traditional view of professionalism still remain relevant as a discussion focus? If not, how should we now view what we do and explain our mission to the world? Suggestions will be offered about what we should now be saying about the essential tenets of the archival mission.

My principal suggestion is to move away from a traditional view of profession based on Western notions of control to an inclusive sense of hospitality, whereby we function less like a medieval guild and more like partners and collaborators. It is indeed a liberating concept.

Yes, it is fascinating to reflect on how one’s perspectives have changed over a few decades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Atrocity Files

The New Yorker regularly features essays about the importance and relevance of records to political, cultural, and economic issues. In Ben Taub, “The Assad Files: Capturing the Top-Secret Documents That Tie the Syrian Regime to Mass Torture and Killings,” April 18, 2016, pp. 36-49, we have another example. While archivists often despair of what they perceive to be a lack of understanding of their work and holdings, they still must acknowledge that there is wide appreciation of the importance of records and their evidence.

Taub, a journalist covering jihadism in the Middle East, considers the labors of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a group established in 2012 in response to the war in Syria. This group has been responsible for smuggling “more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities” (p. 36). It recently issued a four hundred-page report connecting the “systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad” and carried out by his security and intelligence agencies (p. 36). Taub, in this essay, draws on this report and interviews with various people involved in the investigation by the CIJP, including how individual Syrians were trained to gather evidence about the criminal activity in that nation authored by Assad and the use of “military and political analysts, translators, and lawyers in Europe,” now totaling a staff of around one hundred and fifty (p. 42). Like other forms of truth commissions, this organization has become a surrogate archives, a replacement for a government deliberately not operating in humane and transparent ways.

There are many lessons archivists can take away from this story.

Alberto Manguel and Reading

One of the great commentators on the nature and history of reading is the Argentinian essayist and translator Alberto Manguel. To understand Manguel’s fascination with books and reading, you need to know about his stint in the mid-1960s as a reader for Jorge Luis Borges, an experience he has written about in his With Borges (London: Telegram, 2006). For example, Manguel remembers that “For Borges, the core of reality lay in books; reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogue begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end. Books restored the past” (p. 31). Later he reflects, “There are writers who attempt to put the world in a book. There are others, rarer, for whom the world is a book, a book that they attempt to read for themselves and for others. Borges was one of those writers. He believed, against all odds, that our moral duty was to be happy, and he believed that happiness could be found in books, even though he was unable to explain why this was so” (p. 72). One can find similar sentiments throughout Manguel’s writings, attesting to the importance of early influences and mentoring in the lives and work of scholars,

The Manguel book to start with is his A History of Reading (New York: Viking, 1996) in which he establishes reading as a basic human function and traces it from its origins and characterizes it as a cumulative process, noting its substantial changes from an auditory to a silent process. Manguel, who identifies himself as a reader, and writing his book to acknowledge that he is part of a community consisting of many others, considers books as talismans to the merging of books and readers into one seamless entity. He reflects upon the power of scribes and of those who could read, the nature of the symbolic power of the book (amply supported by numerous illustrations). Manguel relates reading, like so many do, to writing: “For me, reading today, the notes I take while reading are held in the vicarious memory of my word-processor, like the Renaissance scholar who could wander at will through the chambers of his memory palace to retrieve a quotation or a name, I blindly enter the electronic maze buzzing behind my screen. With the help of its memory I can remember more accurately (if accuracy is important) and more copiously (if quantity seems valuable) than my illustrious ancestors, but I must still be the one to find an order in the notes and to draw conclusions” (pp. 61-62). What writer has ever set down to write without the benefits of some notes? In this volume we also learn how the printed book, as we know it today, came to be constructed and how furniture and other material aspects supporting reading emerged. We possess books: “The world that is a book is devoured by a reader who is a letter in the world’s text, thus a circular metaphor is created for the endlessness of reading. We are what we read” (p. 173). Libraries, catalogues, classifications are also treated as both aids and barriers to readers. Personal libraries are seen a little differently: “I enjoy the sight of my crowded bookshelves, full of more or less familiar names. I delight in knowing that I’m surrounded by a sort of inventory of my life, with intimations of my future” (p. 237).

 

In another lavishly illustrated book, The Library at Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), Manguel explores the various ways we experience or think about the library, much of this book focused on the nature of personal libraries. He observes, “I like to imagine that, on the day after my last, my library and I will crumble together, so that even when I am no more I’ll still be with my books” (p. 37). Manguel, as he does in most of his books, also comments on the difference between reading a physical book and one on a screen: “Reading a book is perfectly equivalent to reading a screen, no matter what the text” (p. 79).

Manguel did not stop with these books, although he certainly could have, having satisfied most with his contributions to the topic of reading. His Into the Looking-Glass Wood: Essays on Books, Reading, and the World (San Diego: Harvest Original, Harcourt Inc., 1998) is an interesting post-script to his history of reading. Many of these essays were written as reviews and he comments explicitly on the value of reviewing: “Nothing can replace our own reading, and yet the preamble or preface to a text that a reviewer provides can, and in some cases does, turn a book on its head in a refreshing and illuminating way” (p. 216). Manguel offers another collection of essays about reading in his A Reader on Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) in which he considers how books connect us to our past and each other, his experiences of working with and relating to the great writer Borges, the history of books, memory, and education. He offers thoughts on the book’s future: “For many years now we have been prophesying the end of the book and the victory of the electronic media, as if books and electronic media were two gallants competing for the same beautiful reader on the same intellectual battlefield. First film, then, television, later video games and DVDs and virtual libraries have been cast as the book’s destroyers . . . . All readers may be Luddites at heart, but I think this may be pushing our enthusiasm too far. Technology will not retreat, nor, in spite of countless titles predicting the twilight of the printed word, do the numbers of new books printed every year show signs of diminishing” (p. 193). See his essay, “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library,” in this volume (pp. 267-269) for a sense of the library that many have long since lost.

Manguel also shares with us a time of his reading activities in A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader’s Reflection on a Year of Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), revealing how he reads, takes notes, and uses his reading as a foundation for his scholarly projects. For example, he observes, “I could compose a diary made exclusively of fragments from other diaries. This would reflect my habit of thinking in quotations” (p. 105). He also reveals why the ownership of books is so important to him: “I feel uncomfortable having other people’s books at home. I want either to steal them or to return them immediately. There is something of the visitor who overstays his welcome in borrowed books. Reading them and knowing that they don’t belong to me gives me the feeling of something unfinished, half enjoyed. This is also true of library books” (p. 139).

Manguel has drawn on his work about reading and writing to apply the implications of such activities to a variety of social, political and other issues, such as in his The City of Words (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, Inc., 2007), delivered as the CBC Massey Lectures. In The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), Manguel builds on the idea that “Literate societies, societies based on the written word, have developed a central metaphor to name the perceived relationship between human beings and the universe: the world as a book that we are meant to read” (p. 2). The sense of the book brings many qualities to our understanding of who we are and what we need: “The book is many things. As a repository of memory, a means of overcoming the constraints of time and space, a site for reflection and creativity, an archive of the experience of ourselves and others, a source of illumination, happiness, and sometimes consolation, the book in its many incarnations, from clay tablet to electronic page, has long served as a metaphor for many of our essential concepts and undertakings” (p. 10). The digital age has generated the need for us to learn once again to be readers, where we “read slowly, profoundly, comprehensively. . . . to travel in order to return with what we’ve read. Only then will we, in the deepest sense, be able to call ourselves readers” (p. 50)

Manguel also demonstrates his close attention to reading in two of his books. In Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), he reflects on the “palimpsest” of readings of writings about which little is known of the author and for which there are many varying translations, divergent readings in different cultures and by an assortment of authors. In his most recent book, Curiosity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), Manguel traces his own developing sense of curiosity inspired by his reading and shaping his reading, commenting on writers he personally considers important (such as Aquinas, Dante, and Socrates). One can glean many insights into the writing process as well, such as our limitations on expressing what we mean: “To write a book is to resign oneself to failure, however honorable that failure might be” (p. 9). At one point, Manguel considers the human impulse to organize and categorize: “We are tidy creatures. We distrust chaos. Though experience comes to us with no recognizable system, for no intelligent reason, with blind and carefree generosity, we believe despite all evidence to the contrary in law and order, and portray our gods as meticulous archivists and dogmatic librarians. Following what we believe to be the method of the universe, we put everything away into files and compartments; feverishly we arrange, we classify, we label” (p. 259). And in his Reading Pictures: What We Think About When We Look at Art (New York: Random House, 2002), Manguel considers the differences in reading texts and images.

So why spend so much attention on Manguel, especially as some librarians and others have questioned the relevance of his ideas to their day-to-day work or have seen them as nostalgic claptrap? He is worth reading because he is an excellent public scholar, an astute reader, and a believer in the value of words/texts. The later faith seems to have been lost in our era of data, and consequently, our ability to write has been diminished. Personally, I have come to see myself more as a reader than as a researcher, as well as to see reading and reflection as more essentials to being a teacher. But that’s just me.

Criticism

Most people associate faculty with criticism, that is, analyzing their own areas of knowledge, adding to that knowledge, and assessing what others have contributed to it. There is, however, a whole other field of criticism, one that operates far outside of the academy and one that many perceive to be in trouble. A. O. Scott, a professional critic, provides us a view of this filed in his Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (New York: Penguin Press, 2016). Scott discusses the history of criticism, debates about its purpose, and its decline (at least as many assess it). It’s a book worth reading.

However, I just want to highlight a few observations Scott makes along the way. Scott mentions the “brand” nature of cultural institutions: “If they are to survive – if they to remain relevant instead of fading and crumbling – venerable institutions like museums, symphony orchestras, opera companies, and theaters will have to pander. The Louvre may be place, a relic, an archive, and a bazaar, but it is also, and maybe preeminently, a brand” (p. 112). The question we might ask is whether many archives have played on its brand or sought one. I seem to remember a decade ago the appearance of many items – paper, desk objects, and reproductions – attributed to the Vatican Archives, but I can’t remember many other instances of such marketing.

In his consideration about the decline of outlets for critics to express their views, Scott makes a comment reflecting the typical stereotype about archives: “This is not simply an august and ancient tradition fading into quiet, archive-bound oblivion, but rather an ethos of thought and writing that at its best could be speedy as well as rigorous, accessible as well as learned, passionate and irreverent as well as serious” (p. 222). In fairness, Scott is by no means the first nor will he be the least to equate archives with oblivion, but still. . . .

And finally, here is an observation by Scott about the digital future and the future of criticism: “The shape of the digital future is hard to predict – which will hardly deter self-appointed prophets and well-paid consultants from doing just that. What is certain is that there will be no shortage of words” (p. 250). And it is words that archivists and their allies can depend on.

 

 

 

 

Teach a Course

It has been said that teaching a course is like learning twice. In other words, teaching forces you to learn more deeply the subject you are presenting. Why is that? When you lecture or lead a seminar, you need to linger over certain concepts and make sure that students understand what you are saying. You cannot work from simple assumptions, since everything and anything can be challenged. You also need to be able to explain practices and concepts in plain language that can be understood, or, at least, you need to repeat yourself often, and this is often much more difficult to do than you imagine. Good teaching is not about PowerPoint slides or the adoption of other technologies no matter what you are told; students are smarter than this. Even at a time, now, when innovation in teaching is associated primarily with technology, we ought to be able to recognize that successful teaching, where students learn something, is far removed from digital gadgetry and tricks.

Another familiar idea is that if you cannot do, you teach. In one Big Bang Theory episode, Sheldon comments to Leonard, when reflecting on teaching as an indication of a failed or failing career, about whether Leonard had started to think about teaching. Everyone laughs. It is a common idea, that teaching is a lower form of academic or scholarly work than research and publishing. Good teachers don’t necessarily get tenure, but good researchers, even if they are abysmally bad as teachers, always do. In reality, teaching is a form of scholarship, and it can be very important in adding to knowledge, so it is the universities who have confused matters, sending out mixed signals about what are their priorities (erring on the research side of the fence because of the possibilities of generating external funding). But there are more important things. Sorting through the intricacies of a topic, re-sorting them into intelligible notions, and figuring out ways to get students engaged and in a learning mood all requires careful scholarly work. Changing lives and preparing people for their lives are really important. Teaching also requires a lot of other things.

Teaching requires intense preparation. Instructors must stay current with research and scholarship in their field. This requires not just being connected to the primary outlets of publication in their discipline, but it necessitates critical reading and reflection. It takes years to build a solid foundation in any field, and then it takes persistent work to build on top of that foundation. Although it seems close to being lost in today’s university, much of the work of a faculty member is sitting quietly somewhere (in their office, at a library, or at home) reading. All of this is preparation for either teaching or writing for publication (again, both teaching and publishing are forms of scholarship). To the outside world, this life style must seem luxurious, but it can be exhausting and tedious. However, at times, the intellectual or research breakthroughs all make it worthwhile, and sometimes-such moments of insight occur right in the midst of the classroom.

The more one teaches on particular topics, the more one becomes comfortable with such topics and the teaching. Some of my best lectures have occurred with reduced quantities of notes, where I can talk as if extemporaneously, even though it is really the result of endless repetition and practice, often accumulated over the years. The two primary approaches to teaching — the lecture and the seminar — easily blend together in potential effectiveness and efficiency, even though they have been repeatedly targeted in recent years as the death knell of education. Added to these quite traditional forms of teaching are the many new digital approaches to teaching, such as distance education and MOOCs, with many accompanying promises about reenergizing society and reaching many people thought not to be reachable because of their inability to quit jobs, leave home, and attend university classes. As universities have become ever more focused on eliminating or, at the least, down playing the importance of humanities and liberal arts education, it has become more difficult to bring such well-rounded perspectives into the classroom and into the curriculum. Michael Roth states, “Aversive thinking that challenges the status quo . . . is key to the power of liberal education today: instigating doubt that will in turn spur innovation. What we need is not just new apps to play with but new strategies for dealing with fundamental economic, ecological, and social problems. Only by creatively challenging the prevailing consensus do we have a chance of addressing these threats to our future.” (Michael S. Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014], p. 194.)

Discussions about teaching these days have become considerably muddled because innovation in teaching seems to be completely associated with the use of new technologies and teaching online. For the record, I have taught online and I have become convinced more about its limitations than its strengths. There are many who have discussed the limitations of such teaching, reassuring me that my negative views are not unique. Elizabeth Losh argues that whatever advantages these new technologies might have in reforming or strengthening higher education have been squandered because we tend to view higher education as a product rather than a process. It also skews our perspective about the very purpose of teaching: Unfortunately, online learning often takes the sharp edge off of what works best in traditional higher education, where biases of students are challenged, and comfortable generalization must be tested.” (Elizabeth Losh, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014], p. 235.) William Deresiewicz, in a book that generated lots of discussion both within higher education and in the public realm, sees education as more than accumulating skills or building a resume and argues that the solution to the “crisis” in higher education is to put teaching back in the “center of the mission.” (William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life [New York: Free Press, 2014], p. 188.)

Indeed, everyone, before critiquing any aspect of teaching, ought to try teaching a course, at any level (from Sunday School to a doctoral seminar). Not only will you learn something, but also you will begin to have a better understanding about how important teaching is and how elusive it is to achieve any sense of good teaching.

Yet, in the university, there seems to be a declining interest in teaching amongst faculty and doctoral students. I recently addressed this issue in an essay, “The Ethics of Teaching,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 16 (April 2016): 247-261. Here is the abstract: Ask any tenure-stream or tenured faculty member about how well prepared he or she was for entering the academy and the sense of a lack of preparation is clear. One estimate is that only about fifty percent received any preparation for university teaching, and, to compound problems, most doctoral students are being prepared to be researchers Teaching is often something taken for granted, as a task anyone can do. Yet, teaching is a complicated, time-consuming responsibility. Fortunately, we are seeing more studies and descriptions of the characteristics of good teaching. University teaching is not something to be seen as a burden or dismissed too lightly but rather it is at the heart of the academic’s work and calling. This essay draws on the author’s personal experience of three decades in the university. The ethical approach to teaching is to move it back to a central position in higher education. An early version of this essay was presented as a lecture at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information.

The Importance of Reading

Introduction: Reading as Part of Everyday Life

No one would argue that people today are not reading; we see them peering into their smart phones, pads, and laptops with a near obsession. But how and what they are reading may be a different matter, especially in the academy, a place where one assumes serious and systematic reading is occurring.

Reading is basic to human life, something considered fully by Mark Edmundson in his Why Read? (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004). Edmundson aims his book at literary students, asserting that literature is crucial to life, that it guides us in how to live one’s life (and is the essence of a liberal arts education). He argues that “true humanistic study is not geared to generalized, portable truths; it is geared to human transformation” (p. 51). It is reassuring, to me at least, that there are academics who still value reading. In our digital era, it seems to be something we don’t do much anymore, even in the university. We browse, scan, and play with words, but I am not sure we really read anymore.

 

Many others have contributed lamentations about the state of reading. One of the more interesting explorations by a writer about the value and nature of reading comes from novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined By Reading: A Life in Books (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). Schwartz, wandering through various kinds of reading and encouraging others to read, sets the tone of her book early on: “If those of us who live by language become superfluous in years to come, it will not be because of the advance of technology, but the loss of coherent discourse” (p. 24).

Reading and Its Importance for Writing

Just about every one who considers improving writing states that it starts by being a good reader. This is one reason why we have many essay collections by writers and scholars who include their reviews. Professional book reviewers have assembled essays, examples, and memoirs about what they do and how they learned to become readers. Michael Dirda, in his Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), presents his lessons about reading and its importance: “We turn to books in the hope of better understanding our selves and better engaging with the meaning of our experiences” (p. xv). In a more recent collection of columns, Dirda provides an explanation for the importance of physical books: “Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much you’d like to know. . . . Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, remind you, chastising you, calling to you. Plus, book collecting is, hands down, the greatest pastime in the world” [Dirda, Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (New York: Pegasus Books, 2015), p. 233].

Many writers have concentrated on the importance of reading for writing, such as Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them (New York: HarperCollins, 2006). Prose, a prolific fiction writer, starts with a common comment made by writers, that “Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books” (p. 2). She works from basic building blocks, sentences and paragraphs, to more complex concerns, narration and dialogue. She poses interesting questions, such as understanding why some books have lasted for centuries (and what we can learn from this). Prose laments that her worse experience in learning to become a writer was graduate school where she learned that other students and faculty did not share her love of reading and were more interested in theory and other matters. The book includes an interesting list of books worth reading for learning how to write. Likewise, novelist Pat Conroy offers up a memoir of his reading and its influence on him and his writing, in My Reading Life (New York: Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 2010). At one point, Conroy describes his discovery, after moving to Atlanta, of a secondhand bookstore influencing his reading and writing: “I had stumbled upon the secret watchman of the most profound and illustrious intellectual life I would ever experience. Thousands of books roared out my name in joyous welcome when I entered that shop for the first time. Their presence both attracted and intimidated me. Already my calling as a writer had altered the course of my life, yet the two books I’d written seemed anemic to me, boilerplate at best, and I lacked the understanding, the sheer depth of culture I’d need if I were to touch the sourceless, incandescent seas that roared inside me” (p. 110). Conroy offers the usual observations about the task of writing: “Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them visible and clear” (p. 304). And, among his commentary is one of my favorite assessments, “There is enormous power in stating something simply and well” (p. 314).

Some might complain that considering reading as an aid to improve writing might make reading a chore, killing it as a pleasurable task. Some have focused on the joys of value. A good example of this is Wendy Lesser’s two books, Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering (New York: Houghton Mifflin, Co., 2007) and Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Of course, Lesser reminds us there are benefits even from reading for pleasure, such as this in her more recent book: “The good writer remains vitally present in every line he writes, and even when the mortal author dies, the voice on the page is still alive with that individuality” (p. 92). Writing for the ages has its attractions. In a send-up of the pleasures of reading, Laureen Leto, in her Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Reading Everywhere (New York: Harper Perennial, 2012), provides an interesting and entertaining morsel about the nature of reading. In the volume, for instance, she includes a long description of “fake” reading, that is, how to convince others that you are familiar with certain authors and books that one hasn’t actually examined. She also, occasionally, makes a serious comment, such as, “As book covers slip from hands and are replaced by plastic tablets, readers lose the wonderful, clandestine opportunity to quickly create a mutual understanding with strangers” (p. 204), another bit of testimony to why authors and readers should reflect on the impact of the transition from print to electronic books. Well-known critic and humanities professor Harold Bloom, in his How to Read a Book and Why (New York: Scribners, 2008), has contended that we should not attempt to influence or improve our neighbors through our reading. “Self-improvement is a large enough project for your mind and spirit; there are no ethics of reading” (p. 24). Bloom muses about reading novels, plays, poems, and short stories.

Reading in the Digital Era

A lot of the writing about reading is in response to the growing dependence on the digital and connectivity. Many have lamented the loss of reading in our era, such as David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2010). Ulin, a book critic, offers up many observations on this theme, such as “Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being” (p. 16). He asserts about how we have to arrange ourselves in the proper physical space, stating, “to read, we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. That seems increasingly elusive in our overnetworked society, where every buzz and rumor is instantly blogged and tweeted, and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know” (p. 34). This seems like a good description of what is going on.

Other writers and scholars have given us meditations about reading, sometimes through the lens of a unique reading program, such as Phyllis Rose, The Shelf: From LEQ to LES (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). In her systematic reading through a section of the membership New York Society Library, Rose provides a perspective on writing, reading, publishing, and libraries and the relationship between them. Interesting insights emerge, such as “Creativity can be thought of as a stone you roll down a ramp that you yourself built” (p. 12). Rose also provides a different view on the issue of reading an e-book, reminding us sometimes that a physical book can get in the way of reading or that some reading is made easier by the use of an e-book, such as in, “I did not mind the absence of paper and pages. I did not miss the yellowed paper of an ancient paperback crumbling in my hands as I turned pages. It actually helped to weld this somewhat disjointed narrative together to have the bland screen flick to the next block of text without a constant numerical assessment of my progress” (p. 33). Some of her comments venture into other areas of academe and scholarship, such as, “I wish that literary criticism could be built back up on the grounds of experience, closer to book reviewing than to academic theory, with a bias toward enthusiasm . . . “ (p. 215).

Reading and the Love of Books

There are countless books of personal testimonies about the love of books and reading. Columnist Joe Queenan has given us One for the Books (New York: Viking, 2012) in which he provides detailed descriptions of his house full of books, why and how he writes in his books, why printed books are better and so different from e-mails, his experiences in libraries and bookstores, and a host of other personal observations on the value of books and reading. His affection for the physical book is contagious, such as “Books are sublime, but books are also visceral. They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who do not want other people to see how they are amusing themselves, or who have storage and clutter issues, but they are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch, books that we can smell, books that we can depend on” (p. 27). While for many, this might seem like romantic nonsense, it does raise interesting questions for the aspiring and established writer about how they wish to see their work published. For example, for academics building careers, having physical objects that they created and shaped and that can be displayed in their office shelves might be reassuring and provide a better sense of their progress in life and career.

Reviewing Books

One of the common threads of advice in writing guides is that want-to-be writers need to be good readers, so it should be no surprise that many writers, both fiction and non-fiction, become reviewers of books. Many novelists become prolific reviewers of other writers’ work, producing interesting and useful observations about the craft of writing. William H. Gass, A Temple of Texts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) includes analyses of literary classics and would-be classics, introductions to the re-issues of lesser-known literary works, and the personal histories of favorite books. English professional Wendy W. Fairey provides testimony about how our reading is intricately interwoven with our own careers and lives, in her Bookmarked: Reading My Way from Hollywood to Brooklyn (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015). Fairey describes her book in this way: “My book is at heart homage to the books that transform us, that shape our understanding of the world around us and lead us to make large and small connections. Through the books I have read you will know me. Without knowing these books, you cannot know me well” (p. 19). At another place she writes, “Different books engage us at different junctures of our lives” (p. 173). What is particularly interesting is that Fairey started out to write a dry, scholarly treatise and abandoned it in order to write about the nature of reading in a semi-autobiographical fashion, with a goal to reach a larger audience – and she succeeds in doing this.

Some individuals have embarked on projects in reading for particular purposes and outcomes. Ann Morgan, The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015), describes her effort to read a book from every country in the world, in an effort to overcome “years of literary insularity” (p. 7). Morgan considers issues such as cultural identity, translations, commercial versus self-publishing, censorship, politics, and the impact of the Internet. She concludes with this observation” “The possibility exists that someone will find this volume stuffed in a box in an attic in a hundred years time and marvel – not at the concept of working through a sample of literature from every country in a year, but at the idea of reading books itself” (p. 256).

The Practice of Reading

Some writers have made outstanding contributions to the practice of reading. Anne Fadiman, the former editor of the American Scholar and a prolific essayist, has given us a trio of books on the subject. In her ExLibris: Confessions of a Common Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), she sets out to get to the heart of the value and joy of reading, something she feels is lost in most reviews treating books more like they were “toasters” (p. x). She believes that “Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our window sills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they become chapters in it themselves” (p. xi). She writes about merging personal libraries, reading as a child, reading poetry, how we treat physical books, the value of reading books in the place they describe, the nature of proofreading, and the physical characteristics of writing. In her edited volume, Rereadings (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), she brings together a collection of essays by prominent writers originally published in the American Scholar, exploring the nature of rereading as a “relationship between reader and book, like all relationships that matter, changes over time” (p. xiii). And, finally, her At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), resurrecting the notion of the familiar essay, considering the personal relationship between writer and reader, book and reader.

Studying Reading

We also can look at the increasing scholarship on reading. Patricia Meyer Sparks, On Rereading (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011), reflects on a lifetime of rereading and its value. She describes her book as a defense of reading: “It attempts to demonstrate how reading gets inside your head and what it does when it gets there” (p. 21). Most of her description features fiction, but she enumerates reasons for rereading that have implications far beyond just the joy of literature, including “reading for aesthetic satisfaction, reading for the plot, reading in search of life lessons or information or comfort, and reading for escape” (p. 242). There are insights about writing, as well, such as, “Reading and writing alike call on feeling as well as on thought” (p. 128). Sparks, for example, likens the rereading of a single book to a palimpsest: “That image provides a precise metaphor for the results of repeated engagement with a single book. The layers of experience accruing from early readings, partly erased, remain partially discernible. Each new layer both adds to and subtracts from what has gone before. It subtracts in obscuring old reactions by new ones; it adds new responses to those still remembered. The final product – if one can ever speak of finality in connection with rereading – includes more than is readily visible. Although one never altogether recovers previous layers, they add texture and meaning to the ultimate version” (p. 274). In this description, we also can see a description of what writing over a career can become or seem like. While many academic and professional writers might sneer at the idea of matters like feeling, but I believe that many do become so engaged with this activity that emotion is a legitimate factor.

Reading Classics

Some books have come to be known as classics, and every writer and scholar hopes that he or she will produce one of these. Melville’s Moby Dick is a masterpiece, but it is a work that was not recognized as such for a long time, as recounted in Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick (New York: Viking, 2011). John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is another classic, a book that remains in print and popular because it captures a fundamental aspect of human nature, meaning that it remains of current value not merely an example of literary excellence and bringing with it continuing controversy. Susan Shillingwater, On Reading The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin, 2014) provides insights about Steinbeck’s achievement and how and why the book came to be written. She contends that the reason this book remains popular is because it captures something of our human nature. Professional book reviewers, such as Maureen Colligan, offers various insights into what results in profound reading in her Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Reading and Losing Myself in Books (New York: Random House, 2005). The power and influence of reading such classics is emphasized clearly in Iranian literary scholar Azar Nafisi’s two books, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir of Books (New York: Random House, 2003) and The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books (New York: Viking, 2014). In the latter book, she reminds us why writers and their works are often controversial: “Writers are truth tellers, and that can sometimes put them in conflict with the state” (p. 294). This is doubly true for archivists who write, since the records they manage and preserve are often the reservoir of truth. Nafisi also grapples with the purpose of books, asking, “Shouldn’t the point of books be not to affirm our views and prejudices but to question and confront them?” (p. 302). Literary scholar and critic Andrew Delbanco strives to identify and explain why certain writers deserve to be known for having written classics in his Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997). Identifying a number of writers – including Melville, Thoreau, Lincoln, Henry Adams, Crane, Kate Chopin, and Edith Wharton – Delbanco concludes, “I celebrate them because I have no doubt that the world is better for them having written, and because I believe it is the responsibility of the critic to invite others to read them” (p. 214).

Writers, of all varieties, certainly reflect on whether what they write, whether a journal article or a book, will have a lasting influence. Jay Parini, Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America (New York: Doubleday, 2008), provides a historical view of “works that helped to create the intellectual and emotional contours of this country” (p. 2). Parini argues that these works that created and sustained “dominant themes of American life” (p. 4). One could try to do some reverse engineering here in order to create some principles that individuals writing today could draw on in order to produce significant new work. Maureen Corrigan, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (New York: Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Co., 2014) provides both an explanation of what makes a book great and how to study this aspect of a publication’s history. Corrigan argues, “I don’t know how he did it, but Fitzgerald wrote a novel that shows me new things every time I read it. That, for me, is the working definition of a great book: one that’s inexhaustible” (p. 15). Corrigan examines this novel by using archival records and private papers, movie and other media adaptions of the book, interviews, multiple rereadings, and teaching. Corrigan’s definition of literary significance has the potential for being adapted for other publication genres and provides some insights into how a writer might approach and evaluate his or her own work. There have been in-depth studies of how books latter deemed to be classics came to be, such as Michael Sims, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic (New York: Walker and Co., 2011).

Making Books Their Own

Readers can make books their own by writing their reactions and thoughts about what they read in the books themselves. Karla FC Holloway, Book Marks: Reading in Black and White; A Memoir (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006) explores this from the perspective of the African-American community, Holloway notes that not only are such clues left in the margins of books read, but in other places, such as memoirs and autobiographies: “The writers and scholars who have taken the time to consider and use the opportunity of autobiography and memoir to record which books have mattered in their adolescent and preprofessional lives have mattered do not only leave evidence of what mix of literature has informed them, but they also deliberately signal to their readers the instructions and guidelines they want used in a reader’s evaluation of their adult identities” (p. 179).

The Power of Books

All of this is a reminder of the power that books can wield, something sometimes lost in the debates about the future of the book. We can remind ourselves about the power of books by dipping into book history in order to understand how books have been used or targeted in times of war and international tensions. John B. Hench, Books as Weapon: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010) and Molly Guptill Manning, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War !! (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) are glimpses into how authors, publishers, and governments were involved in the publishing and disseminating of particular books as a means of influencing ideas about the purpose of war and its legacy. James Atlas, Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1992), considering the impact of books by individuals such as Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch, reminds us that books wield tremendous influence in other kinds of wars, in this instance the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s. Authors ought to reflect on the potential impact of any book project they embark on by delving into such historical events and trends. Another volume, written in the midst of the culture wars, is David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996). Denby takes the same two core curricular courses at Columbia in 1991 that he took there as a freshman in 1961 and presents us with an interesting reflection on the “great books” courses then under scrutiny. He concludes that what one gets out of such courses is not some basic pile of knowledge but a set of “critical habits of mind” enabling one to proceed in life (p. 355).

Reading in the University

In the increasing debates about the value of the liberal arts in higher education, we gain another glimpse into the value of reading and writing. Fareed Zakaria, In Dense of a Liberal Education (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), warns that “Those who seek to reorient U.S. higher education into something more focused and technical should keep in mind that they would be abandoning what has been historically distinctive, even unique, in the American approach to higher education” (p. 21). At the center of this historical sense is reading and writing. Reading “remains one of the most important paths to real knowledge. There are few substitutes of understanding an issue in depth than reading a good book about it” (p. 62). And then there is writing, where the “central virtue of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think” (p. 72). Zakaria is not a solitary voice in such sentiments. Kevin Carey, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), believes that higher education is being transformed by information technology and that the new university will replace degrees with digital evidence of learning, creating a new model of higher education. But Carey also makes another point, that “If education were only a matter of preserving information to students, the Gutenberg revolution would have destroyed the university five hundred years ago” (p. 69). He argues that information technology “won’t create a future of no higher-education institutions, where everyone learns alone. Students will still need organizations built around educational expertise: places that create curricula, employ experts and teachers, and assess what students know. Rather, information technology will allow for the creation of many new and different higher-education institutions that offer better education for a much lower price” (pp. 141-142). Even in the new university of the future, “Education in the future will still involve reading books, writing papers, solving problems, talking to other people, and getting out into the world. Nobody is going to have information uploaded into their brain via coaxial cables” (p.232). “Getting a legitimate PhD in a tough research field can take nearly a decade. But liberal education? If you take its meaning at all seriously, liberal education is the work of a lifetime” (p. 254), meaning a lifetime of reading.

Arrayed against all the arguments for the utility of reading is the reality that reading has declined and that people increasingly shy away from reading that is difficult and thoughtful in favor of other diversions or reading simple texts. Joanna Scott, in her essay “The Virtues of Difficult Fiction,” The Nation, July 30, 2015, upholds the value of such reading: “Careful reading is difficult because it requires continuous learning. We have to work to learn new methods of reading in response to new methods of writing. But who wants to spend precious free hours figuring out a Gaddis novel when they could be relaxing with Netflix? And with e-readers that limit the necessary page shuffling and rereading that are often required by complex texts, the Mr. and Ms. Difficults of the world don’t stand a chance.”

Conclusion

In this rather lengthy blog post I have commented on a variety of themes, but certainly not all of them, lurking in the considerable literature about the importance and nature of reading. I present some here, as a means of suggesting how people think of reading and how it may be changing. I also present these ideas as way of stating that reading is essential in the life of the academy, and it has to be nurtured in a very careful way.