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least get as much compensation from e-books as they do from hard copy
books, if not more. Publishing’s economic model, which for centuries has
been a mixture of reckless trend-chasing (imitating last year’s bestseller)
and black magic (unwittingly creating next year’s), is badly flawed and in
need of overhaul. But even if we grant all or part of this, we would get no
closer to the heart of the matter about reading.
Why? Because the timespan necessary to settle them is at once too
long and too short. Too long, because the answers, such as they might be,
lie outside the mortal span of anyone alive as I write these words; and too
short, because the larger forces of human existence swirl in longer whorls
than decades or even centuries. Even the debates have an air of history
about them, if one pays attention to history amid the magazine throw-downs and twitter-offs. Staying within the confines not just of Canada
but of the University of Toronto’s department of English, one could note
that in 1962 Marshall McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy, arguing
that moveable type changed the world by hypnotizing the eye to follow
thousands of miles of printed words, while in 1967 Northrop Frye would
respond with The Modern Century, castigating McLuhan’s view as excessively deterministic and blind to the force of human will.
The debate is unresolvable because the terms are beyond settling. Not
only do we not know the future of the book, in short: we cannot know it.
As Kant noticed as early as the preface to his Critique of Pure Reason, human consciousness can reflect on its own possibilities. It is likewise true
that such reflection reveals, among other things, our inability to comprehend the nature of that consciousness. We can, at best, sketch the limits
of what we can comprehend – itself a word rooted in grasping, encircling
with the hand – and then speculate about what may, or must, lie beyond
Some debates are good at taking us to the limit, even if (especially
if) they cannot be settled there. If the bare question “Why read?’ can be
settled by logic, or safely shuttled into paradox, that is not the case for
the subsidiary question “Why go on reading?” – in particular, why go on
reading the sort of thing we have been reading these last few centuries.
To some extent this question holds regardless of delivery vehicle, though
the medium might just be part of the message. The issue worth confront-
ing is this: are humans changing, whether gaining or losing or both but
changing, as our reading habits change?
Writing is a kind of making, in the larger sense of poesis, even if it
involves heavy lifting of only the conceptual or narrative sort. I want to
say, selfishly, that one good reason to read is simply that someone else,
somewhere else, has created the written making , the poesis of print. A public
act of creation has a claim on our attention, just as a plea from a stranger
on the street has, and even if the claim turns out to be bogus, overstated,
or irritating. Humans exist in a discursive world, a world of language,
and creating new instances of discursive possibility, arrangements of
the shared words that are new and unique, and to maybe even make the
words do new and unique things with consciousness, is hard work. Pay it
the compliment of reading.
People write for all kinds of reasons, out of mixed and sometimes
ignoble motives. Nobody sane writes for money, despite Dr. Johnson’s
judgment, so that makes all writers blockheads of one sort or another.
Money may sometimes come, to be sure, but all writers, whether secretly
or with great fanfare, seeking one or a million readers, write because they
want someone to read what they have fashioned out of nothing but their
own thoughts and the humble tools of ordinary language. Writing is, in
this sense, at once the most hopeful and desperate act a thinking human
can consciously undertake. It appears to be an attempt by one consciousness
to reach another by way of a curious magical inwardness, the mundane but
actually mysterious experience of hearing the sound of another person’s
words inside your own head.
Excerpted from “Language Speaks Us: Sophie’s Tree and the Paradox of Self,” by
Mark Kingwell, in The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age?
(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), edited by Paul Socken, professor emeritus,
department of French studies, University of Waterloo.
I want to say, selfishly, that one
good reason to read is simply that
someone else, somewhere else,
has created the written making,
the poesis of print. A public
act of creation has a claim on
our attention ...