Two weeks ago I went to a conference organized by Stichting Lezen, the Dutch organization for reading promotion. The conference was entitled Reading and watching and focused on the differences between the written word and the image: what does the written word have that images don’t?
The keynote speaker was Hungarian writer György Konrád, who talked about reading and writing and focused on what a novel exactly does to readers. In his words: ‘it summons them out of their own and into another world where they can enter into another’s affairs. If that is successful, then they will fear less from others.’ Literature also helps you to ‘be who you are’, texts form a moral guidance. According to Konrád the decline of literature, of reading, of oral culture and of the book is counter stated by the fact that the book industry is still growing. Konrád sees a future for new forms of reading, next to the traditional:
“In all likelihood there is going to be a spread of electronic reading. If I am able to download any book at all into my computer, it may be that I shall read it on the screen for a while or maybe jump in and quickly scan it, skim through or have it skimmed through, and if the text brings me up short, arrests my attention and detains me and then I shall print it out, but it is even more likely that my readiness to purchase a hard copy of the book itself will grow in direct proportion to the desire, because anyone who spends a lot of time looking at computer screens knows that in one’s free time it is much more agreeable to sit in an armchair leafing the pages of a book that is pleasing to the touch than it is to have one’s eyes glued on tiny luminous letters not only during work hours but also during spare-time hours when reading is not obligatory.”
Literature will create its one digital mashups, were in the digital realm the interactive owners of the text lift out the passages they like and drop others. Konrád is neither positive nor negative about these developments, he states them as a fact and goes on to argue that they will not harm literature; it will find its new ways:
“Literature will continue not making authors rich, even if some are able to make a living from it, the majority are obliged to make their living by other means, but even so I think it is just as unlikely that real talents will abandon writing as that humankind will be struck dumb because the written word is the first cousin of the spoken word, and just as people can make a distinction between chatter and substantial communication, between informative and the redundant, so there will always be some who demand cogent texts through whatever channel, in whatever medium, and their will be intermediaries who link writers and readers; furthermore it will continue to be likely that although writers will get a cut, the intermediaries will always have the better side of the bargain.”
The next lecture by Adriana Bus from Leiden University, focused on the importance of book reading for children in the pre-school, under 5 age. Bus shows that exposing books to children at this age is very important for them to become a reader at a later age. As she argues: it is difficult to step into reading without being exposed to ‘academic language’ from an early age on. Learning to read is a very social activity, and part of the emotional bond between parent and child: In the digital age however, the focus of young children is increasingly shifting from books to screens. Children increasingly watch stories on screen alone and read less together with parents. Today’s screen stories however are mostly cartoon like, they are visual and less language oriented. This is why Bus argues for the promotion of living books and motion pictures rather than static pictures. In this way children can get a better idea what the picture is about and they can embed the language better into the picture. Living books thus provide more context clues. Bus ends by stating that schools should take advantage of these new ways of promoting books to children through the digital medium.
The next speaker, Klaus Maiwald from Augsburg University states that reading promotion should acknowledge other media whilst highlighting the exclusive qualities of reading. Akin to what Konrád said before, Maiwald says that reading helps us acquire knowledge about the world. Reading fosters our imagination and our empathy; it shapes our identity. Maiwald asks the question whether there is a fundamental difference between watching a movie and reading a book. Why should we read a novel if we can watch a film?
Maiwald argues that reading teaches us to create mental models. Reading can thus be seen as an elaborate cognitive process in which text data and previous concepts are transformed into mental models. However, today’s movies and series like the Simpsons, Sopranos and 24 have become so demanding and filled with intertextuality and self-referentiality, they also require elaborate cognitive abilities. Now the question is: can the benefits of reading, not equally be obtained by watching? Perhaps, but the cognitive aspects of reading are different, rich mental concepts can not be obtained from watching alone. Literacy events such as reading and talking about books are integral to it, though do not suffice. Competent readers also use other media. If you are smart watching will make you smarter, but in able to be smart you need to read. Next to that, reading has other intrinsic values. To sum it up: reading is crucial for cognitive development and reading grants us special esthetical experiences. This is why Maiwald states that neither reading nor reading promotion should be lost in a pictoral culture.
Raymond A. Mar from York University, did some more empirical studies on the cognitive and social outcomes of reading. Mar states that reading is a very social experience. The simulation of experiences, or the absorption into the narrative makes that stories are very social in nature. He states that this is also a function of fiction: it includes recording, abstraction and communication of complex social information. So he asks the question: does story processing involve social processing? For his research, Mar is comparing the reading behavior of bookworms (literature lovers) and nerds (non-fiction lovers). His research shows that reading narrative help with the development of abstract thinking and vocabulary acquisition, and has transformative powers when it comes to personality development.
He also compared reading versus watching and found that when it comes to school performance, television is bad for vocabulary and academic performance. Exposure towards written texts and films with preschoolers (4-6) helps them develop a theory of mind (learning that other people have mental states). Mar concludes that consuming fiction has thus an influence on the cognitive, the social and the personality development of a person.
Joyce Goggin, from the University of Amsterdam, makes a plea for the acceptance of computer gaming as a form of fiction. For digital culture is affecting a shift in the contemporary novel. Goggin’s argues that videogames can be seen as a new medium for story telling. The interaction with the material, as in hyper and cybertexts (she compares this with Herman Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel), turns readers into players: they create the reading experience. Readers and gamers rewrite text and deconstruct it, they have become like Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. Although characters in games are not multidimensional, but ‘flat characters’, Goggin states that flat characters are multi present in literature. Videogames are also influencing standard codex fiction (remediation of videogames). A middle land is being created, bordering between novel and game, as in the books by Douglas Coupland, Jeanette Winterson and Cloé Delaume (Corpus Simsi).
Concluding one can say that the feeling of the day was that reading has important intrinsic values and features. However, the screen and the new media also offer all kinds of new possibilities and reading promotion should certainly try to find a way to promote experiments with hybrid forms of reading and watching, without letting go of the non-transferable values of reading.