November 29, 2011
By Peter Raad
The Linda Wertheimer Hart Professor
Executive Director of The Guildhall at SMU
The handing down of culture, customs and knowledge has long relied on the written word. Before the invention of the printing press, power often rested with those who owned books and could read them. When the press arrived, it changed us from passive listeners to engaged readers who could think for ourselves and join the human discourse. Knowledge became bound up with the production, possession and protection of the printed word.
Digital technology democratized access to information. The explosion of audio and video widened the modalities of storytelling, communications and the transfer of knowledge. Because listening and watching take less effort than reading, the power of the word began to give way to the power of the image. Now, amid the swirl of auditory and visual stimulation, the urgency of multitasking, and ever-shortening attention spans, we could well be forgiven if we put down the book and wait for the movie! But do we do so at great risk?
Reading, after all, is at the heart of thinking. It develops the ability to quietly listen to the ideas of others. It is linear, focused and methodical, promoting discipline and the ability to juggle concepts. A photograph can convey a landscape or a face, but in reading we gaze past the eyes, into the mind and soul of the author. Reading conveys thought. The practice of reading enriches the practice of thinking.
Technology will continue to change the book. But the book is not about papyrus and ink, or paper and toner. It is a vessel of visions, stories and lives captured by the power of the word. To unlock the vessel, we only have to read.
Interactive video and network technology are here to stay and have the potential to enrich our lives in exciting ways, but they do not replace reading. When Descartes declared, "I think, therefore I am," perhaps he assumed what we are now in danger of forgetting – that to think deeply and well, we first have to read. To read is to be.
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