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Why read literature in the digital age?

A smart question and one that several writers, philosophers, librarians and literary critics were asked to ponder for a slim new collection of essays, The Edge of the Precipice. The question also serves as the subtitle of this book, whose writers contemplate the state of literature in the 21st century. The following excerpt comes from an essay by Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, author of 15 books, contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and frequent columnist in popular Canadian media.


If you are reading this then the question “Why read?” de facto makes no sense – or at least it has been satisfactorily answered sufficient to the present occasion. Any member of the flashlight-under-the-covers family knows that if you have to ask why when it comes to reading, then you’ve missed the point, or maybe a whole bunch of points. You read because you can, whenever you can, whatever it is, against the rules, late at night, to the detriment of your eyes, eagerly and sadly and laughing out loud (and maybe LOLing). If you are not one of those people, then you are probably not reading this and words are at a loss. There may be ways to reach you, the non-reader, but this is not one of them.

You and I are one. These words, penned or in fact typed some time ago – a phrase I feel odd typing right now, throwing it into the optimistic future of your reading moment – these words bind us together, past, future, and present, in a shared consciousness that both of us find somehow worthwhile. In one perfectly sound sense, the fact of reading answers the question of reading’s purpose. Why becomes that. From the other side, though, as Mikita Brottman points out in her book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, we have the equally paradoxical fact that reading seems to need constant promoting or boosterism. Radio networks broadcast competitions among novels to encourage more reading. Wealthy benefactors sponsor lucrative fiction prizes to encourage reading. Adolescent fad books such as the Harry Potter or Twilight series, or among adults the Stieg Larsson novels, are touted as good for reading, even if the books themselves are bad – the premise being, apparently, that fantasies, vampire tales, and violent thrillers function as gateway drugs to the purer highs of Jane Austen or David Foster Wallace.

In back of all these efforts and justifications are the twinned beliefs that reading is good for you, something to be promoted like fitness or not smoking; and that this fact somehow cuts against our “natural” tendencies not to read, just as eating French fries and smoking Camels is more “natural” than not because both acts are surrenders to harmful temptation. The problem is not the moralism – life is full of moralism – but the self-contradiction. If reading is so great, fun or edifying or interesting, why does it need such aggressive promotion? If the gifts of the reading life are so manifest, why do they require defending? Paradox one meets paradox two: if why becomes that in the first, here why becomes because we say so. And that never convinced anyone, least of all the children who get it most.

Which means that anyone who considers the question a valid one – a live issue – is either not paying attention to their own literate commitments, which make the question self-defeating; or, more likely, asking some other, maybe related question or questions.

Such as: Are books worthwhile in their present form? Are they viable? Profitable? Are online or e-book styles of reading better, worse, or just different from the experience we associate with the four democratic centuries of print on paper. Will the codex, the block form of the book, with its bound pages and durable covers, survive? Will it, perhaps, only as an artistic medium, a pleasing atavistic object akin to steampunk typewriters or hippie Victorian fashion? Is there anything inherently meaningful about folded and trimmed paper as the favoured hardware for running the software we call literacy? Does the notion of the “inherently meaningful” even make sense anymore? Did it ever?

The arguments over answering these questions are mostly futile, despite the volume of print (and “print”) they generate. In fact, the debates are so tediously predictable that there is now a drinking game keyed on repetition of familiar claims. We might as well concede several of the main disputes right away. The experience of reading a physical book is probably superior in pure aesthetic terms, at least for those of us raised with such books, to reading a Kindle or iPad book. (Though spare a thought for those of us whose arms have gone to sleep while propping up a hardcover in bed, the book falling heavily across nose and mouth, threatening suffocation.) It is no more than fair that writers should at least get as much compensation from e-books as they do from hard copy books, if not more. Publishing’s economic model, which for centuries has been a mixture of reckless trend-chasing (imitating last year’s bestseller) and black magic (unwittingly creating next year’s), is badly flawed and in need of overhaul. But even if we grant all or part of this, we would get no closer to the heart of the matter about reading.

Why? Because the timespan necessary to settle them is at once too long and too short. Too long, because the answers, such as they might be, lie outside the mortal span of anyone alive as I write these words; and too short, because the larger forces of human existence swirl in longer whorls than decades or even centuries. Even the debates have an air of history about them, if one pays attention to history amid the magazine throw-downs and twitter-offs. Staying within the confines not just of Canada but of the University of Toronto’s department of English, one could note that in 1962 Marshall McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy, arguing that moveable type changed the world by hypnotizing the eye to follow thousands of miles of printed words, while in 1967 Northrop Frye would respond with The Modern Century, castigating McLuhan’s view as excessively deterministic and blind to the force of human will.

The debate is unresolvable because the terms are beyond settling. Not only do we not know the future of the book, in short: we cannot know it. As Kant noticed as early as the preface to his Critique of Pure Reason, human consciousness can reflect on its own possibilities. It is likewise true that such reflection reveals, among other things, our inability to comprehend the nature of that consciousness. We can, at best, sketch the limits of what we can comprehend – itself a word rooted in grasping, encircling with the hand – and then speculate about what may, or must, lie beyond those limits.

Some debates are good at taking us to the limit, even if (especially if) they cannot be settled there. If the bare question “Why read?’ can be settled by logic, or safely shuttled into paradox, that is not the case for the subsidiary question “Why go on reading?” – in particular, why go on reading the sort of thing we have been reading these last few centuries. To some extent this question holds regardless of delivery vehicle, though the medium might just be part of the message. The issue worth confronting is this: are humans changing, whether gaining or losing or both but changing, as our reading habits change?

Writing is a kind of making, in the larger sense of poesis, even if it involves heavy lifting of only the conceptual or narrative sort. I want to say, selfishly, that one good reason to read is simply that someone else, somewhere else, has created the written making, the poesis of print. A public act of creation has a claim on our attention, just as a plea from a stranger on the street has, and even if the claim turns out to be bogus, overstated, or irritating. Humans exist in a discursive world, a world of language, and creating new instances of discursive possibility, arrangements of the shared words that are new and unique, and to maybe even make the words do new and unique things with consciousness, is hard work. Pay it the compliment of reading.

People write for all kinds of reasons, out of mixed and sometimes ignoble motives. Nobody sane writes for money, despite Dr. Johnson’s judgment, so that makes all writers blockheads of one sort or another. Money may sometimes come, to be sure, but all writers, whether secretly or with great fanfare, seeking one or a million readers, write because they want someone to read what they have fashioned out of nothing but their own thoughts and the humble tools of ordinary language. Writing is, in this sense, at once the most hopeful and desperate act a thinking human can consciously undertake. It appears to be an attempt by one consciousness to reach another by way of a curious magical inwardness, the mundane but actually mysterious experience of hearing the sound of another person’s words inside your own head.

Excerpted from “Language Speaks Us: Sophie’s Tree and the Paradox of Self,” by Mark Kingwell, in
The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age?
(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), edited by Paul Socken, professor emeritus, department of French studies, University of Waterloo.

Mark Kingwell
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