Pulp Fiction

By Tom Peters | Eventually, we will realize that our belief in the superiority of PSS reading is pulp fiction. It's already mid-July and I'm still thinking about the programs, news, and events from the ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans three weeks ago. This means either that it was an unusually important conference, or that I'm slow on the uptake and/or have serious conference closure issues.

Two programs I'm still pondering are Kevin Starr's address ("Reading: The Essential Skill") at the ALA President's Program, and Eli Neuburger's presentation at the gaming program. I think both programs touched on a key debate currently simmering in librarianship, which is centered around the question: "What is reading?" I haven't heard anyone argue persuasively that reading is unimportant. The debate is more about the modes and boundaries of reading.

I think everyone agrees that reading words printed on paper, in solitude (even though there may be others around us, as in a library or on a subway), and in silence is currently the dominant reading mode. We can call this "PSS" reading: paper, solitude, silence. When youngsters first learn how to read, often they read out loud, even when they are alone, but they quickly learn that reading in silence is more socially acceptable, easier, and quicker.

PSS reading has been the dominant mode of reading for the past several centuries. The only big changes prior to computerization: the switch from cotton rags to wood pulp in the early nineteenth century and the introduction of paperbound books in the twentieth century.
Some in librarianship think the only true form of reading is via word-printed-on-paper form.The source of the current debate, it seems, is several upstart modes of reading have appeared recently, such as reading an e-book on a screen. Also, for the past several years audiobooks have been a remarkable growth sector in publishing. E-books and a-books now vie with p-books for the attention of the reading public.

Some people—perhaps most—believe that PSS reading is either the only true form of reading, or that it is so far superior to any other form as to make the other forms laughable. The side we choose in this reading debate will affect the overall values and activities of librarianship as a whole.

Starr, the California State Librarian Emeritus, and Michael Gorman, the ALA President who organized this conference program, clearly are defenders of PSS reading as the only true or the exalted form of reading. Starr exhorted librarians to remain connoisseurs and navigators of the printed word. He said the core discipline of our profession is bibliography—the knowledge of books and their contents. He stated that the nurturing interaction between silence and [PSS] reading should not be fully abandoned—that its value is much clearer than the meaning of people silently staring at computer screens. Although Starr acknowledged the increasing importance of orality in our culture, and he admitted he sees some value in blogging, massive digitization projects, and other digital activities, he seems to believe that librarianship should remain on the "high road," appreciating and defending a culture based on words printed on paper.

Eli Neiburger from the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) has an expansive sense of the boundaries and modes of reading. He sees gaming—interactive video games, not gambling—as another new form of literacy. In some fundamental sense, the legions of children, tweens, teens, and adults (the average age of all gaming enthusiasts is 34) are actually "reading" the game. Because Starr spoke of cities such as New Orleans as human creations to be read, perhaps this notion of gaming as reading is not so outlandish.

Our collective historical consciousness probably will come to realize and accept that, although the ascendancy and dominance of PSS reading was an historical fact that cannot be denied, there is nothing inherent in reading on paper that ipso facto makes that act superior to all other modes of reading.

Eventually, we will realize that our belief in the superiority of PSS reading is pulp fiction.

Editor's Note: Jenny Levine's upcoming issue of Library Technology Reports (Sept./Oct. 2006) will examine gaming, innovation, and libraries (and feature a cover image taken at an AADL gaming event this past April). Tom Peters's issue of Library Technology Reports, coming early next year (Jan./Feb. 2007, 43:1), will cover digital audiobook systems for libraries.

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