Do we read books anymore? Travel on airplanes or trains these days and the evidence is mixed. While books are now rivalled by on-demand television and personal devices offering movies, games, and who knows what else, a respectable cadre of passengers still board with book in hand. And alongside those old and worn paperbacks, tablets and e-readers rapidly gain ground.
Yet dig a bit deeper and there are important and consequential questions about what people are reading, how they do so, and why it matters. For Nicolas Carr, reading is endangered: skimming is instead the new norm. For students and professionals, current and future public servants, fiction is often and understandably displaced by emails, social media, reports and decks, to say nothing of the advent of video.
Nonetheless, as a welcome and calming distraction to such a torrent of information and imagery, genre fiction such as crime novels, romance, and fantasy hold their own. Best-selling authors thus remain so year after year, as legions of fans await the next, often turnkey or franchise offering. Familiarity breeds loyalty as readers return to what they know (or perhaps, to be bold, what their favourite talk-show host suggests they ought to know). Some simply await the movie…
What fares less well in such a marketplace are classical literary and contemporary creations; the former often viewed as excessive in length and stylistically impenetrable, the latter competing with mass marketing and the aforementioned preference for the tried and true. In this respect, it is not clear whether the Internet and social media are spreading new creative voices to a wider audience, or mainly expanding opportunities and reach for the most vocal and visible. Similarly, if people predominantly consume Facebook postings and tweets from sources and acquaintances they already know, the prospects for online enrichment greatly diminish.
Nobel Prize-winning author, Orphan Pamuk, argues that what people read matters greatly, both individually and for society as a whole. While he lauds genre fiction as a comforting diversion he also points out that literary novels – those with greater complexity and texture in characters and storylines – have long played a more fundamental role in terms of learning and development. His claim is that literary novels enable us to explore deeper meanings in our own world through multiple worldviews and experiences we could otherwise never have known. In addition, grave and hopeful lessons of history are kept alive, transcending generational divides.
In a similar vein, researchers have recently found that reading fiction is an important determinant of empathy and thus crucial to improving interpersonal relations and understanding. In settings of religious and cultural diversity such as Canada today, such attributes matter greatly. Innovation has long been correlated with diversity too, meaning that the economic dimensions to literary invention should also not be overlooked.
Whether technology facilitates or diminishes literary appreciation is certainly debatable, but it is perhaps telling that a leading elementary academy, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in the heart of Silicon Valley, shuns the usage of digital devices in classrooms. In a community with near technological ubiquity, parents and teachers instead emphasize unplugged forms of cognitive development such as literature and performing arts (for more insight, an October 2011 article on the School can be found online from The New York Times).
Aside from educational importance, the relationship and differences between literature appreciation and digital literacy also matter for the public service as a whole – a consummate knowledge organization. While undoubtedly a bit much to assign novels as a workplace requirement, fiscal austerity alone cannot create an agile and adaptive workforce. Much as technology companies encourage employee freedom and creative experimentation, so it must be for public servants.
Social media enables the creation and sharing of new forms of literary undertakings that can have tremendous value in bettering governance. Though e-government has, at times, become synonymous with online, transactional processes and efficiency, truly citizen-centric service capacities require empathy and creativity in fostering shared narratives with diverse groups of clients. Here too literary appreciation and fine arts are skill sets the public service can ill-afford to lose.
What people read and how they read are thus important pieces of the crucially important challenge of fostering a learning society, one with increasingly digital dimensions. Bottom line, then, when crafting your upcoming summer reading list, be sure to choose wisely.
Jeffrey Roy is professor of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).