Reading is dead! Long live reading!

Reading is dead! Long live reading!
North Valley Military Institute student Edwin Perdomo, right, focuses on his book during reading time. (Al Seib / MCT)

You may have missed it, but Tina Brown recently went to India and proclaimed the death of magazines, journalism and of reading itself, more or less in that order.

Brown, the former editor of Newsweek and the New Yorker, must not do much reading herself anymore. Why else would such an intelligent woman say reading must be dead because "I think you can have more satisfaction from live conversation"? Civilization, Brown added, is "going back to oral culture where the written word will be less relevant."


Brown's words, spoken at a conference in Goa, India, were jotted down by a writer for the Hindustan Times who then reported them in that venerable storytelling form called journalism. Thanks to that scribe, Brown's statement has been blogged (by New York magazine, The Guardian, and many other outlets) and shared and reshared and tweeted and commented upon in that collection of virtual gathering places known as "the social media."

There's an amusing irony in all this. We now have the most advanced tools in the history of humanity to spread the written word -- and people simply can't resist using those tools to spread the idea that the civilization that produced them is doomed.

This week, a reader at the American Conservative (which also reproduced Brown's words), took to his or her keyboard and responded on the website's comments section with a summary of all the "death" talk he or she's been reading about lately:

"Death of the novel, death of lyric poetry, death of literature, death of cursive writing, death of writing itself," wrote the commenter, a lawyer from Philadelphia. "Death of August holidays. Death of looking at the stars. Death of romance. Death of marriage. Death of church music, death of Western Christianity, death of liberal American Judaism, death of American Judaism generally, death of religion generally. Death of democracy in Europe. Death of the moral community. Death of Western civilization …. Death, death, death."

I'm not sure about August holidays, or cursive writing. But I'm pretty sure reading isn't dead. What's dead and gone forever is a certain static notion about what reading is, and how readers approach the written word.

Yes, some readers long for days when publications like Newsweek were read by millions -- Brown was the magazine's last print editor. For those too young to remember Newsweek, it was a smart-looking, middle-of-the-road and consummately professional magazine. It offered the world (international events, U.S. politics, coverage of celebrities, reviews of serious novels, etc. etc.) in about 70 pages. You could buy a copy in a newsstand in any American city or town, and also find one without much difficulty in places like Guatemala City and Nairobi. Newsweek gathered all sorts of different readers with different tastes and bundled them together and sold them to advertisers and made a fortune.

Newsweek's glossy pages are no more. Its readers have drifted over to a variety of websites to feed the different parts of their reading habits: perhaps The Guardian and Al Jazeera when war breaks out in the Middle East; or maybe The Millions and Pitchfork when a new book or album is released. And they've gone to general news and culture sites like Slate and Salon, where the writing is often more opinionated and spirited than anything Newsweek could have offered.

And then there's Tumblr, that amazing collection of more than 100 million personal "magazines," if I may be allowed to call them that, a blogging site popular with many individuals who seem to enjoying reading and writing quite a bit.

On. Oct. 23, Hannah Giorgis, a recent Dartmouth grad who goes by the Tumblr user name "Ethiopienne," attended a Jamaica Kincaid reading at Columbia University. Kincaid said a provocative thing or two about women, race and writing, and rattled off a list of "10 things a black woman writer should do." No. 1: "Do not be a black woman writer."

Giorgis, 22, loves to read. She told me in an interview that Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler are some of her favorite writers. As a woman of color (she's the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants), she thought Kincaid's remarks were funny and cutting and spoke to her directly. ("No. 6: "Do not write about race. Everyone will say you only write about race." No. 7: "Write about race. If you don't, they will point out that you haven't written about race.")

"A lot of my own writing is really just me trying to navigate what it means to straddle various (sometimes competing) identities in a country that seeks to distill complex humans into one digestible caricature," she told me in an email.

Giorgis took notes at Kincaid's talk and four days later typed them up and posted Kincaid's "10 things" list on her Tumblr page. Soon, thousands of people had shared it on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter (where I saw it). To date, 3,000 people have shared her list on Tumblr alone, including a wide variety of users with overtly literary habits: by one reader whose page is called "Confessions of a Bibliophile," for example, and another who is a fan of the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno. My Google search found the list on about 1,700 Web pages.

I told Giorgis that it's a safe bet that tens of thousands of people had read the words she had written.

"I think it speaks to the incredible power of words, particularly stories," she told me. "And why representation in books and media is so, so, so, so important for people… All it takes is one author to validate that your life experience is worth reading about."


Reading is not dead because reading can still make people like Hannah Giorgis feel fully alive.