The New Readers: Principles and Models (Part Two)

The history of reading, as the last post argued, has its traditions. Each century has its reading habits. There have, however, been few radical changes in the way people read. In recent decades, nonetheless, some critics have noticed a shift in practices. In A History of Reading in the West Armando Petrucci writes:

The impression one gets by frequenting places of higher learning in the United States – in particular, certain university libraries (if I can generalize from personal and relatively casual experience) – is that there, as elsewhere, young readers are changing the rules of reading behaviour…

Interesting. He goes on:

How can we describe the new ‘modus legendi’ of young readers? First of all, the body takes totally free positions determined by individual preferences: a reader can stretch out on the floor, lean against a wall, sit under (yes, under) a reading room table, sit with his or her feet up on a table (the oldest and most widespread stereotype) and so on.

Under a table? Really, this is too much…

Second, the ‘new readers’ either almost totally reject the normal supports for the operation of reading – the table, the reading stand, the desk – or else they use them in inappropriate (that is, unintended) ways.

Can it get any worse? It can…

Finally, the new ‘modus legendi’ also includes a physical relationship with the book that is much more intense and direct than in traditional modes of reading. The book is constantly manipulated, crumpled, bent, forced in various directions and carried on the body. One might say that readers make it their own by an intensive, prolonged and violent use more typical of a relationship of consumption than of reading and learning.

Oh now: consumption is such a dirty word. Petrucci is worried, clearly. All this ‘intensity’ has him hot under the collar. After all, think of the implications:

All this ends up influencing reading habits. The short lifetime of the book and the absence of a precise collocation for it (hence the uncertainty of ever being able to put one’s hands on it) make difficult, if not impossible, an operation that was common in the past: rereading.

Here, it seems, is the rub. Now books are being crumpled and bent by the intensity of the ‘new’, ‘active’ or ‘extreme’ reader, the possibilities of rereading are diminished. The book is treated as something to be consumed and then thrown away: not to be re-read.

But is this really true? If it is, two of my passions (active reading and re-reading) are seen to contradict each other. The book that is read actively is less likely to be read again. Unless of course it is. And why wouldn’t it be? ‘Active’ or ‘extreme’ reading doesn’t necessarily destroy a book. Damage takes place, certainly. To read a book with intensity is not, however, to wish to kill it. Quite the opposite, in fact. The ageing of a book represents a closer, more intimate relationship between book and reader. The book is marked by the reader: it becomes part of their identity. To throw it away would be to throw away a part of themselves. A fresh, un-marked book is easy to give away: it has no life. A dog-eared copy of one’s favourite novel on the other hand: to destroy such a thing would be sacrilege.

Which brings us, I guess, to libraries…

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