Author Bio

What’s Reading to You?

posted: 1.31.13 by Andrea Lunsford

Did you get a book as a gift over the holidays? Or perhaps a reading device like a Kindle?  I received several books—to my delight—and I’ve just read one of them, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times by Andrew Piper, who teaches at McGill University in Montreal.

I really like this picture of Piper because it captures for me the persona that speaks in this book:  he is bemused, intrigued, nostalgic—all at once, and through this web of feelings and attitudes he meditates on what the book has meant to us and on its fate in what he calls “electronic times.”  What I found most refreshing is his refusal to join the rush to one side or the other in the debate over Web-based reading and its effects on us.  That these effects exist he admits, but he is not willing to condemn them or to see them as making us stupid, etc.  On the other hand, he wants to claim a very special place for books—the traditional, bound, print kind.

Piper came by this “both/and” approach naturally, since he grew up in the first generation of children using personal computers.  A devotee of computer camp, he began programming at age 9.  But when his parents doled out punishment, it was in the form of “go to your room and read.”  Some punishment!  As Piper puts it,

From this I learned that reading was an activity that allowed me to calm down, to locate a sense of repose, which was not easy for an eight-year-old boy with an older brother.  It was the first intimation I had . . . that reading was a discipline. It takes work to learn, to advance, to maintain.  Reading isn’t just an escape, it also disciplines us, molds us into who we are. I am now, thanks to my disciplinary past, a professor of literature.

So Piper doesn’t want to indulge in “digital utopias” or “print eulogies” but rather “to understand the rich history of what we have thought books have done for us and what we think digital texts might do differently.”

Piper’s style is at once meditative and inviting; I pretty much read the book through in two sittings, with time for pauses and thinking and some meditating of my own.  It’s a leisurely—but not too leisurely—read, and I recommend joining this author as he investigates what it is that we do when we “read,” whether on page or on screen.  He says, toward the end of the book, that in the time it took him to write Book Was There (which is, by the way, a quotation from Gertrude Stein), his young son learned to read, and he remarks that his son “will never look on the world in quite the same way.”  This was certainly true of me, and I expect of you as well:  reading opened whole worlds, whole universes to me; I would never be the same again.  So to Piper, the most important thing is for us to read, to value and savor reading, and to understand something about what happens when we read.

And yet, as Piper notes, reading is still in many places a luxury; roughly twenty percent of the people in the world can’t read and the numbers of those unable to read in the U.S. are of growing concern.  As teachers and as readers, we have a chance to open, or to open wider, the world of reading to students.  Whether we do so with print or with screens, let’s just do it:  let 2013 be a year for reading, in all ways.

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