Digitizing literature and styles of reading

Digitizing literature - The Boston Globe
But the act of reading a great book requires something of the reader: time. A book must be ''read," it can't be background noise nor can it be understood from a page. If books are reduced to just another streaming media, how does an author foreshadow an event or delight us with a surprise ending? Can the works of James Joyce or F. Scott Fitzgerald or those of Zadie Smith or Khaled Hosseini be absorbed from one-page instant messages, broken up by advertising and video images? By: Jim Bildner, the founder and chairman of The Literary Ventures Fund and Ande Zellman, its editorial director.

This is a great example of essentialism assuming that there is only one style of reading and that all books (with the possible exception of reference material) require the same approach. In fact, human cognition operates with both models - I like to call them the 'aphorism mode' and the 'tome model'. The first model relies on the evocative power of the 'pithy phrase' and the centuries old obsession with quotations only attests to its compelling nature. The second model, assumes that one needs to be fully immersed in the context of any speech, and to 'understand' a philosopher or a writer requires familiarity with the entire text or even oeuvre. But human cognition would be impossible without both modes being available to us. On a higher level of cognition (even though I find the concept of levels of cognition and language very problematic) it is often the case that a single phrase may help the reader make sense of an entire novel and vice versa. To 'truly understand' a work of fiction (or scholarly writing) one would have to immerse themselves not only in the work itself but also in the attendant acadmic discourse.

At any rate, it is dubious that Amazon's search feature which so worries the authors will have such far reaching consequences on reading. And even if it does, it will not necessarily be to the detriment of our civilization:

To an already endangered publishing ecosystem, the prospect of spoon-feeding bits of digitized literature seems to be the last thing our civilization needs. If we're not careful, our children, and the society we create around them, will remembers bits of this so-called ''printed record" without ever knowing the joy of having read a book cover to cover. They won't even remember what a book feels like.

The authors go on to complain that a friend's son graduated from a private school without ever reading a complete book. That may sound distrubing on one level but first we must realize that this has been the default state for most of humanity for millenia. I would venture that there will always be about 10-20% of the population who will devour complete books regularly for the sheer pleasure of it. But one of the most dangerous things is to foist our private pleasures onto other people. It is only a short step from telling people that they must read to telling them what they must read (because, of course, only certain literature can truly be considered reading).