Matthew Kirschenbaum posted early this month a lucid response to the hysteria around the lowering literacy rates in the United States. While the To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence and the initial report 2004 Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in Americapoint to a decline in literacy, or at least the kind of mass literacy as practiced by a large, compulsary education centered around the bound book, Kirschen draws out some interesting conflicts in this assumption — and too points to the fact that Western Culture (with caps) was not born with mass literacy and nor will it die without it. These reports merely indicate there is a change in what it means to be literate, a change that has already been estatically hailed by the likes of Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong: a collective, externalized nervous system, a hot, connected culture.
Two choice bits from Kirschenbaum’s essay:
- Walk into your favorite coffee shop and watch the people in front of their screens. Rather than bug-eyed, frenzied jittering, you are more likely to see calm, meditative engagement — and hear the occasional click of fingers on keyboards as the readers write.
- When I read [How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read] (well, most of it), the book provoked the most intense author envy I have ever felt — not because I too secretly enjoy perpetuating literary frauds, but because Bayard speaks to a dilemma that will be familiar to every literate person: namely, that there are far more books in the world (50 million or 60 million by the estimates I’ve seen) than any of us will ever have time to read. Reading, Bayard says, is as much about mastering a system of relationships among texts and ideas as it is about reading any one text in great depth.
The whole essay can be found here. Also, Kirschenbaum has just published a book named Mechanisms, which examines new media and electronic writing against the textual and technological primitives that govern writing, inscription, and textual transmission in all media: erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability.