Reading as a Contact Sport
going to ask you to do some work throughout this session. From time to
time I'm going to ask you to do some free-writing in response to a
prompt. To start, I'd like to ask you to take a moment to think back to
your very first memory of a library. Where was it? What did it look
like? How did you feel when you were there? Who was there with you?
Take a few minutes to jot down any impressions you can remember about
sure many of you are familiar with an OCLC market research report
published a couple of months ago, Perceptions of Libraries and
Information Resources, a large-scale survey conduced for OCLC by Harris
Interactive. A major concern of the study was how the public perceives
the library as a "brand." The finding? Overwhelmingly, libraries are
identified with books. As the cover of this report indicates, this
response is very puzzling indeed. Why books, when libraries offer so
According to the authors of the report
never fear, all is not lost: the report goes on to say "This global,
nostalgic perception should give the library community reason to be
concerned, but it also provides a solid base from which to leverage
value, and create change, on a large scale. . . Libraries must take
this advantage and work collectively to 'rejuvenate' the brand."
It's a little perplexing to me that it's so crucial to rejuvenate a brand that is apparently successful - library visits have doubled in the past ten years and circulation is up in all types of libraries - but evidently the brand needs work because people now can get information elsewhere. It's not that they don't think of libraries as places to find high quality information; the majority of respondents named "providing information" as the main purpose of the library, and they believed the information to be of good quality. It's just that libraries have to share the market for quality information with the Internet. And though sharing is something libraries do rather well, sharing the market is evidently a sign of failure. If people turn to Google instead of to our databases, we must be doing something wrong. If people think of books instead of databases when picturing a library, we need must need better marketing.
Wiegand has pointed out that while Americans like libraries, and always
have, librarians struggle to define what they're for. Libraries, he
says, have done three things exceptionally well for the past century:
they make information widely available, they provide places where
people can meet for cultural and civic purposes, and they have
furnished billions of reading materials to millions of people. (It's
not outrageous to borrow McDonald's slogan of "billions served" given
there are more libraries in the US than there are McDonald's outlets.)
have focused their claim for significance almost exclusively on the
first of those three functions: they provide information, or as it was
called in an earlier era, "useful knowledge." The other two
functions - providing a civic space for the public and offering them
books to read - are not high priorities because, well, they're not
obviously useful. Or perhaps they fail to make us feel useful.
need to narrow the definition of usefulness goes back a long way. At
the beginning of the twentieth century it had a name: the "fiction
problem." Public libraries, that were intended to elevate and educate
the masses, had trouble discouraging their patrons from choosing
fiction. At the end of the 19th century, the library director in
Allegheny, Pennsylvania reported he had successfully rid his library of
Horatio Alger stories and other popular material, saying "It is
certainly not the function of the public library to foster the
mind-weakening habit of novel-reading among the very classes - the
uneducated, busy or idle - whom it is the duty of the public library to
lift to a higher plane of thinking." Reading fiction was not only
unproductive it was dangerously addictive: "once the habit . . . is
formed, it seems as difficult to throw off as the opium habit." In the
same vein, in 1906 the Toronto Public library's annual report bragged
about their success in decreasing in the circulation of fiction as if
they had averted a public health crisis: "there is an indulgence in the
reading of trashy novels which is destructive to the mind."
we got over this attitude and made a real contribution to reading
communities by providing books without prejudice for a diverse set of
tastes and purposes. As Wayne Wiegand has said in discussing the
politics of cultural authority,
though we no longer make a practice of tossing fiction on principle, we
continue this tradition of discounting readers' tastes when we
disparage books as an outdated "brand" and when we focus our branding -
and our research and resources and LIS education - on information
rather than what most of the public believes libraries are about. An
ALA survey in 2001 asked members of the public what they used libraries
for. A whopping 91% said "to borrow books." When asked what skills
librarians needed, the skill most desired was "familiarity with a range
of books and authors."
we foreground the importance of "information" we sometimes fail to
understand how people actually use information. The ACRL standards for
information literacy assume that users first identify a need for
information and then take steps to seek it out. In fact, a great deal
of information is not sought at all, but rather encountered. Though we
insist that providing information is the library's highest purpose, we
fail to take into account that readers get information when they read
for pleasure. Canadian LIS scholar Catherine Sheldrick Ross found,
after interviewing over 200 readers, that people find a wealth of
meaning in what they read for pleasure - and a study recently conducted
by researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK confirm her
findings. "Many participants believed that reading increased their
understanding of people from other background and cultures . . .
reading permits the person to see into areas of society which otherwise
would be denied to them and subsequently they are more able to
participate fully in a democratic society." The study also said
participants felt "reading imaginative literature was vital for keeping
their own imagination alive, it also contributed to creative output and
problem solving within their own life experience" (39).
psychologist Richard Gerrig has conducted experiments that suggest
readers don't distinguish information provided in fictional form from
facts presented in other kinds of texts. The less readers know about
the subject matter of the fictional work, the more likely they are to
accept material in it as factual. He adds, "even when readers actively
try to discredit fictional information, they may have called to mind
other beliefs that will persevere after the fiction itself has been
unaccepted" (237). Information, not sought deliberately but encountered
in imaginative literature, becomes part of one's knowledge base, for
better or worse. Epistemologically speaking, we don't shelve fiction
separately from non-fiction.
like to pause again and give you a chance to do a bit of reflection.
This time, spend a couple of minutes thinking about your personal
reading practices. What do you enjoy reading? What do you get out of
it? Have you ever had your beliefs or your understanding of an issue
influenced by a work of fiction?
from our neglecting the importance of pleasure reading in the lives of
library users, there's a popular misconception that feeds libraries'
fear of obsolescence - that reading is on the decline, that the
Internet is crowding out reading, that young people aren't interested
in books, that books are no longer important to the public we serve.
Yet there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. An article in the most
recent volume of the Annual Review of Sociology reviews
research published over the past ten to fifteen years and addresses
some common questions raised about reading. The answers are surprising.
Who reads? Just
about everyone. In a normal day, a majority of people do some reading
in books, magazines, and newspapers. Over half say they are reading as
much as they used to; only three percent say they read less. Nine out
of ten say reading is a good use of time. Reading, unlike watching
television or playing games, is a prestigious activity, assumed to be
socially and culturally valuable. Children aren't generally chided for
spending too much time reading books.
How do we read? We
read socially. We learn to read within the social frameworks of school
and in the family. We read as members of collective groups - in
imagined communities as well as in formal reading groups. We read what
others read so that we can share the experience. We read sometimes as a
means to an end, but often we read for pleasure, as an end in itself.
Is reading losing ground to other media?
New technology has always had an effect on reading, but it's not always
a negative effect. The growth of rail travel in the nineteenth century,
for example, actually increased reading, because people brought books
and newspapers along to pass the time. Television has been accused of
competing with reading since its advent in the 1950s, though Michael
Korda credits the introduction of television with saving book
publishing in the fifties and sixties; television needed talking heads
to fill air time and, for the first, time authors could talk to
millions of people about their books. Time spent on the Internet does
not apparently compete with reading. The heaviest Internet users are
the heaviest readers. This shouldn't surprise us: not only does much
Internet use involve reading, the first successful online retail
venture was an online bookstore. Internet communication has also
fostered sharing reading experiences: there are thousands of book
groups thriving on the Internet - about which I will have more to say
in a minute.
reading isn't in such dire straights as we might think. Another common
misperception is that reading is a solitary, even lonely activity.
Before widespread literacy, reading was a rare accomplishment. In early
works of Western art, most readers depicted were males who were either
contemplating religious texts or engaged in higher learning, generally
in serious solitude. Women as readers began to show up in the arts in
the 17th and 18th century, but these images were generally in a
private, personal setting, distinguishing reading by women as a
significantly different activity: one that was intensely interior,
domestic, even at times showing reading women as idle and
self-absorbed. In the twentieth century, women who read were often
depicted as women who didn't have an authentic life. In the dystopic
dark side of the perennial Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life,
a life among books is a lonely substitute for a more socially
meaningful and fulfilling life as wife and mother. This image of
reading as private, personal, and a poor substitute for real life has
only recently been challenged as scholars examine reading as a socially
mediated activity, one worthy of study.
the past two hundred years," according to sociologist Elizabeth Long,
"reading groups have been primarily women's groups" (31) and for that
reason she had trouble getting anyone to take her research seriously.
When describing it to a colleague, he was mystified until he finally
understood what she meant - and dismissed it, saying, "oh, my wife
belongs to one of those." End of conversation. Yet nineteenth century
women's reading groups had a significant social mission: they were
engaged in promoting culture and in social reform, and were responsible
for founding the majority of American public libraries. Today, though
certainly men belong to reading groups, and entire communities,
colleges, and even states choose to read books in common, reading in
groups remains an activity strongly identified with women.
groups gained a high profile when Oprah's Book Club was launched. For a
few years a relatively obscure novel anointed by the popular talk show
host would become an instant bestseller. Oprah's approach to reading
was two-fold. First, she encouraged readers to tackle books that they
might find difficult because reading would stretch their minds - it
would be educational and enriching. But she also allowed readers to
think about books in terms of their own lives, to find common ground
through reading with writers and with other readers, something that is
discouraged in academic approaches to reading literature that emphasize
critical analysis rather than emotional responses. She also would
entice readers by talking about how much she personally enjoyed the
book. Some members of the literary establishment took exception to a
television celebrity being so strongly identified with book culture.
When Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections was chosen, he
expressed reservations that his novel would be labeled with the Oprah
logo. He worried it would be shunned by highbrow and male readers, if
embraced by middle-class women. Thanks to his response, the influential
club came to a sudden halt. Only recently has Oprah returned to
choosing contemporary works for her book club. And once again, when her
choices go awry they become news.
nobody but Oprah has a book club that reaches 22 million people, her
book club is a merely a well-publicized version of an unquenchable
thirst for talking about books. Book clubs are everywhere. Elizabeth
Long uncovered over 100 book groups in Houston when she started
researching the phenomenon, and realized later there were probably far
more that she hadn't discovered. On the Internet, there are untold
numbers of book discussion groups. Yahoo Groups lists over 36,000
groups in the category "books and writing;" the majority of these, of
course, are not formal book discussion groups, but many of them are.
And community common reading programs - begun by Nancy Pearl in the
mid-1990s with "If All of Seattle Reads the Same Book" - have become
for another free write prompt. Are you involved in a reading group,
either face-to-face or online? Has your library been involved in a
common reading experience or hosted book clubs? If not, would you like
joined an online book group focused on crime fiction in 2003 after a
friend I knew through another discussion list recommended it. One of
the things that intrigued me about it was that, though I had two
degrees in literature and an MLS, I was learning more about how people
respond to books and what books mean to them than I ever had before.
This group, aptly called "4 Mystery Addicts" (or 4MA for short) was
been started by a handful of mystery fans in December of 1999 who
wanted to have a more in-depth experience with books than they'd found
on other e-mail discussion lists. When I joined it had around 500
members from around the globe; it now has over 750, many of whom lurk.
Though the majority of posts come from residents of the US, the UK,
Australia, and Canada, in the past two years there have been members
from all continents save Antarctica. It's a very diverse group in terms
of physical disabilities, educational attainment, income, age, gender,
and sexual orientation. As one member told me, "Online book groups take
you beyond color, race, religion and sex - you all love books."
group is moderated by a team of six who play various roles in
maintaining the community. It's a remarkably even-tempered group. In
part, that is due to the moderators playing an active role in enforcing
the rules, posting gently-worded reminders when a member slips up and
forgets to edit replies, responds in an overly-confrontational manner,
or veers into off-topic remarks about politics or religion. But to a
large degree, the group moderates itself. Members are careful to
maintain a humorous and civil tone; conflicts are rare and quickly
defused. Controversial issues often surface in the discussion of a
book, since social conflict and troubling ethical issues are so
commonly the subject matter of crime fiction, but members generally
word their comments carefully to minimize any potential to cause
the conversation often wanders off-topic, the focus is kept on reading
in several ways. When a new member joins they are asked to introduce
themselves and describe their reading preferences. Members respond,
often suggesting additional authors the new member might enjoy. There
are three formal book discussions each month, with books nominated and
voted on by the members. Two of these are led by volunteer "Question
Maestros" who devises a set of questions to be posed over the course of
a ten-day period. Some Question Maestros go to special lengths to
enrich discussion by pointing out Web sites for background information,
finding apt lyrics of songs to preface questions, or even contacting
and interviewing the authors of books under discussion. A recent
discussion of a Walter Mosely novel, Devil in a Blue Dress,
opened with a link to a Web site that offered classic blues recordings.
The book discussed in the middle of the month is for "serial readers,"
focusing on the first three books in a series so that readers can
examining the growth in the series over time. For variety, there is a
"moderator's choice" month, one devoted to "other cultures" and a
"classics month" in which nominated books must have been published at
least forty years ago. In the course of the discussions, members often
disagree about the things they like or dislike in a book, but their
disagreements aren't a source of contention. In fact, the books that
provoke the widest disagreement are usually the ones that make for the
most interesting discussions.
from the formal book discussions, various routines keep the focus on
books. In the middle of the month members report on what they're
reading, and at the end of the month members post reviews of all of the
books they've read that month. Every now and then members are asked for
the first paragraph on a random page of the book they're currently
reading. It's actually a surprisingly good reader's advisory tactic -
when you scan paragraphs found on page 45 of a number of books, you
usually can pick out some that you know you want to read. These formal
opportunities to encounter books to try is one of the chief benefits
people find in belonging to 4MA. As Catherine Sheldrick Ross has
pointed out, having happy experiences choosing books is key to reading
success. "Each book read contributes to the bulk of reading experience
that enhances the reader's ability to choose another satisfying book.
Conversely, each unsuccessful choice decreases the beginning reader's
desire to read, which in turn reduces the likelihood of further
learning based on interaction with books." As members pool their vast
knowledge of the genre, they constitute an ongoing reader's advisory
service of great depth.
For an article that came out in Reference and User Services Quarterly
last summer I sought permission from members to quote some of their
posts, and conducted e-mail interviews of several willing members to
get a deeper sense of what role the group has played in their lives. I
was inspired to write about the group when a member posted a message
with the subject line, "Reading as a Contact Sport." It clarified for
me just how social and interactive reading is.
member spoke of reading as a "love affair," in which the reader and
writer engage in a short-term but passionate relationship: "it always
takes two, and even the ultimately sad ones "grow" you in some way, as
long as they touch you where it matters." And she describes its rewards:
solidarity of a group of like-minded avid readers is also a source of
comfort (and amusement) for this online group. Apart from exchanging
tips on where to store excess books (who needs to bake? Use your oven
for storage) or how to read books while weeding the garden, members
support one another's passion for reading. As one Australian member
joked, "Most people have stopped asking me why I need so many books
(because I've taken to peering at them and asking in a very loud voice
'you mean you don't!!!!!!!') but they still sigh and pointedly move
stacks of books around so they can 'sit comfortably' . . . I've often
contemplated banning anyone from the house who doesn't have an
emergency book in the glove box of their car when they arrive."
sense of solidarity extends beyond a shared love of reading. "People
respect each other's opinions but go way beyond that and support each
other," one of the moderators told me. "True friendships have bloomed.
Lots of small and not so small gestures have happened - books sent to
members who don't have the resources to buy some books for example . .
. Over the years, this list has grown into a full blown community where
the books are still the center but the people and their lives fill all
the space around them."
informational value of fiction, as well as its ability to offer
opportunities for reflection, is something members are aware of. When
asked what they get out of reading mysteries, entertainment and escape
were often mentioned by 4MA members, but so was learning new things. "I
like the way I can get lost in a good mystery and I feel like I learn
something from the best of them, be it about a geographical area, or
some aspect of science or technology, or just about people of different
cultures or backgrounds," one member told me. Another said, "Reading
has always been my saving grace. As the eldest of nine children
escaping to a corner with a book was my way of coping with life in
general. Even though I have always read many different types of book,
from historical to romances to non-fiction history and biography,
mysteries have long been my favorite genre . . . Maybe it's the
psychology involved in trying to understand the villain or maybe it's
escaping my problems by reading about someone else's."
member began by pointing out she enjoys the puzzle, but added "What's
kept me interested in mysteries is the constant spotlight on the human
condition. Even the more gory, extreme books that I've managed to
finish have provided an insight into humanity and its frailties that I
just don't get with mainstream literature anymore." Though this may
mean reading about uncomfortable subjects at times, that encounter can
be informative. "If it makes people stop and think about issues then
it's a positive thing," one member said. "I keep remembering the
discussion we had on Rebecca Pawel's Death of Nationalist and
the issues it raised about war, human nature and how nothing is black
and white. I think that's probably the most interesting book discussion
I've ever participated in."
tried an experiment this past August, hoping to transfer some of what
I've gotten out of this online book discussion to the college
experience. On our campus, as on many, we have a "common reading," a
book that incoming first year students are encouraged to read over the
summer before coming to school. I got a few first term seminar teachers
and their students to join me in holding an online discussion of the
book chosen for this year, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner.
This proved to be a spectacular failure. I hoped the students would be
able to get to know each other a little bit before arriving on campus
and have a positive exposure to talking about books just for fun. The
only problem was that none of them felt brave enough to join in. They
were intimidated and thrown by the idea of talking about a book with
college faculty for fun, and weren't sure what their role was.
According to one of them, they were used to being given questions that
they could look up in the book, questions with implied answers that the
teacher knew. Though many of them read for pleasure, they couldn't
connect that pleasure to an educational setting.
surprise for me was the different assumptions about what this common
reading experience was for. Faculty assume a book discussion should
focus on forming a better understanding the book by analyzing its
structure, its plot, its characters and themes. The student affairs
staff who initiated the program wanted the book discussion to focus
almost entirely on emotional identification - to use events in the book
to discuss adjustment to college, sometimes to almost comic effect.
"Amir had to leave Afghanistan and start a new life in America, and his
relationship with his father changed. How do you think your
relationship with your parents will change now that you're in college?"
In many ways this cultural practice of reading a book in common on a
college campus is a fulcrum for the contested notions of literacy, and
for that reason I'm observing the entire process of selecting a book
and planning orientation next year to unpack some of those assumptions
year I'd like to try another online discussion format, either one led
by upper class students or a public conversation that incoming students
can read without feeling pressure to do more than "lurk." I'm convinced
there is a role for forming a sense of community through reading
together, one that could be especially valuable for incoming students;
using online communication has the potential to break down students'
belief that responding to books in college means finding the correct
answer. Perhaps, too, it will help faculty and student affairs staff
learn how analysis and intellectual engagement with books can
comfortably coexist with the empathy and identification that
characterize popular reading practices.
a librarian, being a participant-observer in an active book group,
whether online or face-to-face, can be an eye-opening experience. The
multiple ways that readers respond to books, and the importance of
books in their lives, is affirming of what we do as a profession.
Elizabeth Long has put it this way:
return to the beginning, when we question the public's identification
of libraries with books, we are discounting, I believe, one of the most
valuable and underrated services a library provides. The authors of the
OCLC market research study seem to be saying essentially "when people
identify books with libraries, they are missing out on the richness and
importance of the information we offer." I disagree. When the public
says books they are talking about information - and much more. They're
talking about the personal fulfillment they gain from reading, from the
ideas, meaning, and values that they find in books and in the social
act of reading together.
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