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What is a Reader?

posted: 7.14.11 by Andrea Lunsford

A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel at the 2011 summer meeting of the Association of Departments of English called “What Is a Reader.” It brought together scholars from several California universities who are part of a larger group studying and debating the future of reading. Many at the meeting expressed grave concerns, citing studies that show that young people are reading less and less. As with many debates, however, it all depends on your definitions. If by “reading,” we mean engaging classic works of literature, then yes, young people are reading less. But if by “reading” we mean engaging texts of all kinds—then it is clear that young people are reading more than ever before.

I began my remarks by offering a small taxonomy of ways of reading, drawn from a course I taught a year ago where we wrestled with defining reading. These ways include, I suggested, informational reading (what Louise Rosenblatt called “efferent” reading), that is reading to extract information. Other ways of reading we identified were ludic or playful reading, rhetorical reading that is aimed at action, aesthetic or hermeneutical or analytic reading, and participatory or creative reading. As far as I am concerned, all of these ways of reading are legitimate and important:  though we in English departments tend to emphasize the close reading of literary texts, I believe that other texts (student writing, let’s say) deserve the same kind of careful, artful “close” reading that characterizes the best literary criticism; I also believe that other ways of reading can be generative as well.

As for defining today’s readers, I gave that a stab as well. I said that young readers today are first and foremost writers: they prefer, indeed they insist on, producing as well as consuming texts.  Thus readers are participatory, collaborative, social beings, accustomed to mixing media and genre and to doing something with what they are reading. (This is the participatory or creative way of reading I described above.) In a bit of serendipity, just as I was preparing to deliver these remarks, J. K. Rowling obliged me by announcing Pottermore and, in doing so, providing an example of just what I was describing. If you haven’t seen the announcement, check it out.

This new project, which Rowling says she has been writing millions of new words for, will invite readers to join in the fun. The site will allow users to interact with environments from the novels, read Rowling’s additional writings, and even contribute their own creations to Harry Potter’s universe.   As Rowling says, “It’s the same story with a few crucial additions, the most important of which is you.” Rowling is in some ways late to this game: other authors have been inviting fans to join them in creative activities for years now. But Pottermore promises to make the biggest splash, with an invitation to readers to be one of the first million people to register for the Web site on July 31—Harry’s birthday. Happy reading!

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One Response to “What is a Reader?”

  1. Traci Gardner Says:

    I think too you could point back to your Texting IS Writing post. There’s as much reading as there is writing going on when students are zapping messages back and forth!