History Always Repeats

I admired Leah Price’s column in yesterday’s NYT Book Review; I tend to sympathize strongly with the retrospective historians’-eye view that the present generally thinks of itself as exciting and unique and unprecedented and ominous in ways that doesn’t square with careful attention to our ancestors’ experience. Price reminds hand-wringing doomsayers that “until radio and television dethroned the book, social reformers worried about too much reading, not too little.”

As Price points out, the internet has made readers of people who were significantly less likely to pick up a tome off the Nonfiction Bestsellers List. There’s a difference between reading online and reading books, but that difference can’t accurately be characterized as a decline in reading per se. If there’s a problem with what we read online, we need to address it by acknowledging first that we are online reading.

This exemplifies yet another dimension of my tedious refrain: We’re participating in (or “futilely resisting”) a cultural transition in response to digital technology. We can panic and shout, we can ignore it and hope it goes away, but the most productive course entails participating critically — so that we know what we’re pontificating about, and can make pertinent, useful suggestions about how things might be better.

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