7 Reading in the Age of Hypertext
Let's take a moment to review where we have been and where we are going. The material on this page will help you move forward with your research for Project 2.
This course begins with a single main idea: The book as a technology. Instead of studying the words on the page, the content of the book, we look at the container itself. It turns out that the printed codex is a powerful technology that shapes thinking, communication, learning, and culture.
The Broadview Introduction to Book History describes this idea by using the word materiality. We are studying the book as a material artifact, and material artifacts are things that are made by people who are trying to do things in the world. What kind of things do people do with books? They tell stories. They record histories. They make arguments. They meditate, worship, and build cultures and communities. They influence people. They build new nations and new civilizations.
In Unit 1, we studied how the technology of mechanical printing began around 1450 in Europe and evolved over a period of about 500 years. Print culture, as defined by Elizabeth Eisenstein and others, was crafted over time as technologies for printing, manufacturing, distributing, and sharing books were developed. By the 20th century, the book had been built into the foundations of learning (schools, universities, and libraries), government (legal and political discourse), religion, science, culture, and society. The emergence of radio, film, and television changed the landscape, but the printed book remained firmly rooted at the center.
Now, in Unit 2, our focus shifts to the development of the Internet. In about 30 years, the Internet has brought about a revolution in the technology of the book. It took 500 years for print culture to evolve. Digital culture has developed on a scale and at a pace that is unprecedented in human history.
So here is the main question we are focusing on in this unit: How does the Internet change reading? As we saw at the beginning of the course, there is some debate about how to answer this question. Nicholas Carr, among many others, worries that reading is becoming a lost art in the Internet era. He feels like we are losing the ability to focus and read deeply. Steven Johnson, on the other hand, claims that digital reading opens up new possibilities for collaboration, community, and social forms of reading.
What do you think? Project 2 is your opportunity to answer that question and contribute your own ideas, experiences, and research to the ongoing conversation.
The point is not simply to argue that the Internet is good or bad when it comes to reading. Carr and Johnson are both right in some ways. Reading and literacy are complex, interesting processes and experiences. So your second project is a chance to do some research on some part of reading and how it is changing as we move through this transition from print to digital culture.
As we learned in Unit 1, the shift from scribal (or manuscript) books to printed books created some losses as well as some gains. Much earlier, the transition from oral to literate cultures also brought about momentous changes. The Greek philosopher Plato famously argued that the new technology of writing was going to ruin people’s ability to remember things. So any major shift in technologies of reading, writing, and communicating is going to have some effects that look like losses and some that look like gains. As scholars and researchers, our goal is to focus on details and explore the complexity while resisting simple answers or pro-con arguments.
Suggested Topics for Project 2
The topic of reading and literacy is huge, so let’s look at some of the ways you might narrow that to a more manageable scope. Any one of these subtopics is something that would work well for Project 2.
The experience of reading. You could study yourself as a research subject. Most of us today read a mix of print and digital texts. How do you decide which format to read? Do you prefer certain kinds of texts in print? or in digital? What motivates your choices when you decide which medium to read in? Why? Starting from this personal-experience standpoint, you can then do some research to find out if your experience is typical or unusual. Pew Internet is one great source for all kinds of data about reading habits and technologies.
Reading and the brain. Reading turns out to be a very complex process in terms of cognition and visual processing. Some research has begun to suggest that reading digitally literally “rewires” our brains to think and process information differently. Reading something is not the same as really comprehending and remembering it. Anyone who has ever crammed for an exam can testify to the fact that you might remember what you read long enough to pass the exam, but a month later, you are likely to remember very little. So how does digital reading compare to printed texts in terms of things like memory, comprehension, and cognition? In the Broadview Reader in Book History, selections by Katherine Hayles, Jerome McGann, and Andrew Piper are good sources to start with for this topic. I also recommend the work of Maryanne Wolf, whose book Proust and the Squid is a brilliant account of the story and science of the reading brain. Another name to know in this area is Stanislas Dehane, who wrote a book called Reading in the Brain.
Spaces and places of reading. Libraries are one example of a place built for readers and reading. In the digital era, libraries have been transformed from storage spaces to community digital hubs. How have libraries changed and adapted to the needs of readers in a digital age? If you are interested in this angle, you might also think about virtual reading spaces. Websites like Goodreads are designed to promote books and reading to readers online. You can connect with authors, other readers, and form groups and fan clubs and all kinds of things on Goodreads. What are examples of other virtual reading groups, fan sites, or digital reading groups? Any of these might be a great topic for a research project.
Fanfic. Readers and fans of just about everything from Harry Potter to Star Trek have gotten into reading so much that they have literally become writers who take the original stories and transform them in their own ways. The culture of fan fiction is a fascinating development of the digital age, and it blurs the boundaries between readers and writers. You may participate in a fan culture or fan fiction community yourself—this would be a great subject for a research project! Fanfiction also gets into interesting questions about copyright, ownership, and intellectual property. Some authors and publishers are more fan friendly than others. Why do you think that is?
Reading and learning. Some of you are teachers, or plan to be teachers and educators. All of you are students, participating in a learning institution and in this course. How do you think digital culture changes the experience of learning? Learning and reading are closely related, but not the same thing, of course. There are many ways to learn besides reading. I personally love teaching online, and I think the online environment makes me a better teacher than I was in face to face classrooms. But clearly online learning is a different experience than a traditional classroom. Research is only now beginning to really explore how to use technology more effectively to expand access and improve learning.
The changing nature of literacy. Print culture has, for 500 years, defined literacy primarily in terms of the ability to read printed text. Today, however, it might be equally important to be able to read images, evaluate websites, and learn from video and other visual media. Maybe we need to change the definition of literacy to include these “multimodal” texts as well as just written words. How would you begin to define literacy today? A great place to start with this topic is a writer named Gunther Kress, who has written many books and articles (as far back as the 1990s), arguing that we need to adopt a broader, multimodal or multimedia concept of literacy.
Those are just a few suggestions about ways you might narrow the field to begin defining a topic for Project 2. Many of you have already identified other topics and approaches as well. You are not limited to the ideas on this list. They are just suggestions as possible starting points.