Monday, October 13, 2008

John Berry’s “Escape from Reading”: Where to Begin?

To be blunt, John Berry’s September 15 editorial column for Library Journal (“Escape from Reading”) is misguided. Berry begins by mentioning that “I never ‘loved’ reading, the way so many people declare they do,” with his increasingly poor eyesight only making the act “more difficult.” Therefore, as he writes:

“In this new phase of my life, I have begun to view the progress of media and information technology as advancing my liberation from reading, or at least from much of the guilt and drudgery I associate with it.”

The word “liberation” in this sense is a bit peculiar, but isn’t really problematic yet. But Berry further contrasts reading with other (aural-visual) forms of media consumption that he prefers. Reading is “time-consuming,” while new media forms are easier and more efficient. Classic literature full of “lifeless typography,” such as Ulysses and Moby-Dick, was once a proverbial millstone around his neck, while “[b]oth sound and image giver the words more color, more life.” Not liking books once meant negative feelings (guilt, embarrassment, shame), while “I [now] don’t have to...feel guilty because I’ve put down the book to watch the movie.”

So how is Berry’s dislike of reading meaningful for the modern library? As he writes:

“We librarians would be fools if we didn't take advantage of the liberation the new media have given us from our ancient role, chained to the codex book and the hard labor of reading it and toting it around. Though books will always have an exalted place on our shelves, there's a great deal more we can offer, both in our stacks and on our library web sites. It is clear to me that among our most exalted professional missions is to make sure these new ways to receive entertainment and information are accessible and available to everyone. That can only lead to more widespread enlightenment, even for those who, like me, need sometimes to escape the printed page” (emphasis mine).

This is a bewildering passage for several reasons. Berry’s support of new media as a tool of liberation is remarkably uncritical, ignoring any sort of social or historical context (other than his own personal experience). Are other forms of media consumption inherently “easier” than reading? How does “easier” equate with “liberation” or “enlightenment”? Moreover, librarians are more than adequately incorporating “these new ways to receive entertainment and information,” which is largely contributing to the 21st century library models that…Berry decried earlier this year. Hmm.

Similar questions arise with regard to Berry’s treatment of reading. As best I can tell, “reading” in this column primarily stands for reading canonical works with which many people struggle. But reading books is, quite obviously, about much more than wrestling with Ulysses, as the broad review coverage of Library Journal amply demonstrates every issue. What should also be quite obvious to Berry is that there are countless ways to read books and respond to what we are reading, whether James Joyce or Danielle Steele wrote it. There are too many counterexamples to plausibly imagine books as something to which we are enslaved or “chained.”

And this leads to perhaps the most irritating aspect here, which is tone and word choice. Berry declares halfway through that “some folks will see this as a confession,” which is really an unavoidable conclusion. By casting books as oppressive and the act of reading as guilt-ridden, he clearly makes it sound as if his general rejection of both is a courageous act. It isn’t. That’s not to say that Berry’s struggles with reading aren’t legitimate, or that libraries shouldn’t extend their outreach to patrons who are there for reasons other than to check out books. Rather, adequately addressing such issues requires an appreciation for complexity and a lack of hyperbolic claims—both of which are sorely lacking in this column.

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