Reading then and now


ON READING NO MORE, Farhad Manjoo, The NYTIMES, 2/9/2018

I’ll make this short: The thing you’re doing now, reading prose on a screen, is going out of fashion. We’re taking stock of the internet right now, with writers who cover the digital world cataloging some of the most consequential currents shaping it. If you probe those currents and look ahead to the coming year online, one truth becomes clear. The defining narrative of our online moment concerns the decline of text, and the exploding reach and power of audio and video.

THIS MULTIMEDIA INTERNET has been gaining on the text-based internet for years. But last year, the story accelerated sharply, and now audio and video are unstoppable. The most influential communicators online once worked on web pages and blogs. They’re now making podcasts, Netflix shows, propaganda memes, Instagram and YouTube channels, and apps like HQ Trivia.

Consider the most compelling digital innovations now emerging: the talking assistants that were the hit of the holidays, Apple’s face-reading phone, artificial intelligence to search photos or translate spoken language, and augmented reality — which inserts any digital image into a live view of your surroundings. These advances are all about cameras, microphones, your voice, your ears and your eyes. Together, they’re all sending us the same message: Welcome to the post-text future.

Still, we have only just begun to glimpse the deeper, more kinetic possibilities of an online culture in which text recedes to the background, and sounds and images become the universal language.

The internet was born in text because text was once the only format computers understood. Then we started giving machines eyes and ears — that is, smartphones were invented — and now we’ve provided them brains to decipher and manipulate multimedia. Suddenly the script flipped: Now it’s often easier to communicate with machines through images and sounds than through text.

It’s more than just talking to digital assistants. Artificial intelligence might soon let us search and index much of the world’s repository of audio and video, giving sounds and pictures a power that has kept text dominant online for so long…

Tech didn’t just make multimedia easier to produce. It also democratized non-text formats, which for so long had been accessible only to studios. Podcasting became something like the new blogging, a way for committed amateurs and obsessives to plumb the underexplored eddies and mysteries of life. There’s a podcast by a guy who spends more than a dozen episodes explicating the genius of Kanye West’s fifth studio album. He does so using a trove of documentary material he found — where else? — on YouTube…

The transition to multimedia won’t be smooth. Business models are hardly proven. For several news sites, the pivot to video ended in a bust that will now give Facebook and Google even greater market power. Many podcast advertisers — I’m looking at you, Blue Apron — are themselves not on the most solid financial ground; they could blow up tomorrow, taking the whole boom with them.

Yet the financial questions may be the least of our worries. An online culture ruled by pictures and sounds rather than text is going to alter much about how we understand the world around us.

The haze of misinformation hanging over online life will only darken under multimedia — think of your phone as a Hollywood-grade visual-effects studio that could be used to make anyone appear to say or do anything. The ability to search audio and video as easily as we search text means, effectively, the end of any private space.

Then there’s the more basic question of how pictures and sounds alter how we think. An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality. It’s a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. (Remind you of anyone?) And will someone please think of the children: Do you know how much power YouTube has over your kids? Are you afraid to find out?

But what are we going to do? There seems no going back now. For text, the writing is on the wall.

ON READING, Philip Waring, The Waring School, Beverly, MA. 1985

Here we are together in school, and we are told that the principal activity in our school, in our lives, (if we’re no longer hunting and gathering) is reading, or should be. Yet we also hear that the Great Age of Reading, the period from the French Revolution to the First World War, is behind us.

We are reminded that whereas in the 19th Century great literature reached large mass audiences nowadays the large audiences are only found before television or movie screens, listening to pop music on the radio, or in attendance at rock concerts.

Why then do we assign you so many books and articles to read? Aren’t we going against the stream, embarking in a futile, Sisyphean endeavor? Would we have you live in the past? As if the Age of Reading were still with us?

Why do we expect you to read and to use television, radio, and the movies only sparingly? We do so because we believe there are things essential to your education that are best learned from books.We believe that the role of books in the process of becoming free has not yet been supplanted by movies, radio or television. Nor do we think that it will ever be.


We, your teachers and tutors, are readers. If you do not become one yourself you will experience serious difficulties in keeping up with the academic expectations of this school.

What kind of books do we want you to read? What kind of books are essential to your education?

For class that’s easy. We will tell you what to read, what novels, stories, poems, history and science texts, newspapers, magazine articles. But on your own you ought to be reading things that interest you – for that’s the only way you will begin to read a lot – and you ought to read things that are difficult for you – for that’s the only way you will become a better reader.

In that regard think of reading as a game, sport, or other activity in which you want to improve your skills. Then you’d pick a book that is difficult for you, one that will force you to climb up to its level. This works for reading as it does for tennis, chess and playing the violin.


There should be books in your room at home. Are there? In any case you will be asked to borrow or purchase many books for your classes at school. Many of these should end up in your own library, be available when you want to refer back to them. Don’t be hesitant about marking up the pages as you read (for library books you will need another system). Don’t be afraid to share passages that you like with friends, and we would particularly encourage you to share them with the whole school.

Then if and when you find an author you like, try to secure copies of other books he or she has written and then read them. Think of the profit to you from this. By reading several works of the same author, you become familiar, with another person’s particular way of seeing the world.

Your initial interest in this writer will probably result in your identifying with many of the situations that you encounter in his books and thereby you will learn important things about yourself. And this process will cost you next to nothing (other than perhaps your previous image of yourself).

Why, even in the Great Age of Reading, books were not as cheap nor as plentiful and as readily available as they are now. There happens to be no better buy on the market today than a good book. To profit from this situation, it is only necessary that you become a reader.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s