Reading on the Move

pmla.2013.128.issue-1.largecoverRecent Publication: “Reading on the Move.” PMLA 128.1 (January 2013): 232-237. (Special Section on “Reading in the Digital Age.”)

There can be little doubt that reading over the past two decades has accelerated tremendously. In the 1990s academics hotly debated the so-called visual turn of postmodern society, applauding or lamenting how mediated images seemed to displaces speech or writing in communication. Yet no age has ever written and read more than the one nursed with text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook. And no age has witnessed a quickening in the production, delivery, and consumption of written text comparable with the one launched by today’s regime of compulsive digital connectivity and its stress on unconditional instantaneity and co-temporality. Think of the astonishing velocity with which texters consume and fire off their missives while reading texts on other screens around them. Think of the compression of publication times made possible by technology, the ever-faster turnover of bestseller lists, and the fact that newspapers and magazines in their online presentation no longer exist as fixed editions but undergo continual updating. Thanks to the wireless magic of our e-readers, we can access books on the fly (“Start reading . . . on your Kindle in under a minute”), at all times and from almost anywhere. Much about this mobilization of the written word raises legitimate questions about the future of pensive, contemplative, or absorptive reading. But instead of asking, Does the flux and noise of digital culture destroy the conditions for good reading?, this essay asks what I consider more productive—and in fact challenging—questions: How does the mobility of reading today change our concept of reading? What does it add to our understanding of how we read in the first place? And how does it invite us to see and revaluate past reading practices in a new light?

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