Thursday, October 1, 2015

Show Me the Critical Thinking; or, The Digital Natives Are Restless

Recently I read bell hooks's Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (Routledge, 2010).  I haven't read much of hooks's work, mostly her first book, Ain't I a Woman? (South End Press, 1981) and the occasional article or interview since then.  It seems to me that she does better in short pieces than in books -- some of her critical essays on African-American film interested me, for example -- and that she gets lost when given the length of a book to move around in.

Teaching Critical Thinking confirmed that impression.  The writing is mostly slack, in the Culture of Therapy mode, and there's precious little critical thinking on display here.  To keep it personal, it takes very little critical thinking for me as a gay man to object to antigay bigotry and heterosexual supremacy.  I must also turn my critical faculties on my own views, on my condition as a gay man, on my responses to homophobia, sexism, racism, and classism in my own community.  It may not be fair to compare hooks to someone like Audre Lorde, but really, why should I read hooks when Lorde is so much more challenging, inspiring, and a much better writer?

I was especially annoyed by hooks's discussion of literacy.  She quotes some debatable numbers on American illiteracy and some typically bogus generalizations about the ignorance of Kids These Days, then goes on to complain:
Of course, there is much discussion about the role of technology, specifically about computers replacing books.  Yet reading books on computers can never be the same as holding a book in one's hand, returning to pages without the aid of electricity or batteries, reading passages aloud to oneself or another person, reading the book in bed, lingering over pages, reading aloud.  [Your Department of Redundancy Department.]  For many the book is vital to the practice of constantly re-reading, but more essentially it is necessary for genuine reading.  Books invite us to imagine [129].
And did I mention reading aloud?  This is appalling.  Oh, it's true, reading a book on a computer (and an e-reader like the NOOK or the Kindle is a dedicated computer) is not the same as holding a printed book in one's hand. But bookmarking -- to say nothing of the search function -- makes it easier to return to previous pages.  And there's nothing about a computer or a dedicated reader that interferes with reading passages aloud, reading in bed, lingering over pages.  Did I mention reading aloud?  As for re-reading, I do that often on my e-reader; perhaps too often.  Perhaps "many" find the printed book on paper to be "vital to the practice of constantly re-reading," but there doesn't seem to be any real basis for their compulsion.

"There is much discussion about the role of technology, specifically about computers replacing books." True, there's a lot of discussion about all kinds of issues, and much of it is empty babble.  I would expect a critical thinker to point out some of the history of failed predictions by technocratic triumphalists (analogous to the history of failed predictions of the Second Coming).  I'd also expect a critical thinker to point out that printed books are part of the history of technology, that the advent of printing in Europe inspired the same kind of panic and predictions of doom that e-books inspire now, and above all that "digital" and "electronic" books are still books.  A book isn't the material object but the virtual content.

About a week ago, FAIR reported on a New York Times story about the present state of e-books.  It appears that sales of e-books are slowing, sales of printed books show "surprising resilience," and even many younger readers ("digital natives," the Times calls them) say that they like physical books as well as digital books.  One of the more significant revelations in the story was that publishers had decided that "cheaper e-books would cannibalize their business," so they raised e-book prices, often above the price of physical books.  FAIR writer Jim Naureckas commented, "Well, yeah–when you raise prices of things, people tend to buy less of them."

Eastasia has always been at war with Oceania.  I seem to remember that corporate media previously touted and cheered on the "digital apocalypse," the inevitable trampling of print beneath the feet? hooves? claws? of the e-book.  Now that our Shadowy Publishing Overlords have changed their minds, the Times can exhibit relief that print is making a comeback.  The funniest part might be the surprise that many people -- even the hip, digital-native techno-savvy young! -- might use both print and e-books.  Just as they might collect vinyl LPs and listen to digitally-stored music on their phones!  Like, OMFG, are they allowed to do that?  Is it legal?  Is it even natural?

The science-fiction writer and gadfly John Scalzi wrote a good piece about the same Times article on his blog, reporting anecdotally that his teenage daughter, "(who now, as it happens, works at the local bookstore), ... [is] sucked into her phone as much as any person her age, or indeed, as much as most people alive, it seems. And yet, when she reads books, and she reads a lot of them, print is her preferred medium, and was even before the bookstore."  He then analyzes the article from the viewpoint of a successful writer who's attentive to the business of writing, publishing, and selling books.  He noted that the Times article didn't address sales figures by independent publishers, and declared: "[N]o matter how you slice it, if you’re lightly sliding over its existence, you’re not accurately describing the current publishing market."

There's good discussion in the comments too, some of which addressed "hybrid" readers and how we mix e-books and physical books.  Like Scalzi, "I like to read print books at home but am immensely grateful for eBooks when I travel."  Also, as an old man who's thinking about what to do with the thousands of physical books I already own, I anticipate that e-books are going to play an increasing role in my reading future.  I'd like to relocate, and I neither want to take all my books with me, nor can I, unless I get a massive infusion of money from somewhere to pay for shipping and other costs.  So far, the Prize Patrol from Publishers Clearing House has not shown up at my door.

Others pointed out something I should have thought about before myself: audio books.  The reason I hadn't thought about them was probably that I don't use them.  I've listened to a few, but 1) they're too slow compared to reading -- I'm a fast reader compared to most people; 2) I find the narrators' voices distracting, compared to the inner voice I hear when reading text; 3) I find it difficult to concentrate on listening -- how do people listen, as many do, while driving to work? talk about dangerous distractions! -- and my retention of content when I've tried has been poor compared to reading text. One thing about critical thinking that I must stress when I talk to my friend's class next year is that it is not a purely individual process but depends on the input and ideas of other people, who notice things I don't.  Several of Scalzi's commenters remarked on the sales of audio books (whether on physical media like cassettes or CDs or in digital files) as a proportion of book sales overall.  That certainly should be taken into account in any discussion of electronic publishing, not least because many audiobooks are electronically stored and played.

It also occurred to me, though, that when people are wailing about the supposed decline of literary e-books will inevitably bring about, no one seems to mention audiobooks.  Maybe I just haven't noticed it before, but I don't think so.  Even the people who mentioned them under Scalzi's post only discussed their impact on book sales and the publishing industry, not on literacy or the survival of dead-tree books and brick-and-mortar bookstores. Yet if any book format constitutes a threat to literacy -- not to mention the sensuous pleasure of holding a book in one's hands, rereading favorite passages, etc. -- surely audiobooks are more dangerous than e-books, which still involve reading text.  Ebooks bad, audiobooks good!  The relative silence about the growing popularity of audiobooks, when people are wringing their hands about the Digital Apocalypse, indicates to me that not critical thinking but a highly biased and selective technophobia is at work.