This is a version of the presentation I made at the January 22, 2012 “One Book, One State” event which was sponsored by the Rhode Island’s Center for the Book. More than 200 people gathered in a historic church just outside of Providence to hear Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Caleb’s Crossing, a work of historical fiction that brings readers into the life of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University — in the year 1665.
I’ve been reading a lot more on my iPad these days. Reading online has some tiny frustrations: I miss the cover art and pagination of a printed book. But there are some deep pleasures. For example, I love the ability to highlight a digital text and then share my highlights with other readers. I love the “swish” movement of turning digital pages, I admit. Highlighting a moving, lyrical passage (and discovering that hundreds of others have identified it too) makes me feel connected to a community of readers.
From a scholarly point of view, however, we don’t know much about online reading. We know it can be different in many ways from reading from a printed page. This topic inspires my great curiosity, which is one of the many reasons why I’ve picked up my life and my family to come to the University of Rhode Island to serve as the Founding Director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media. I am relishing the opportunity to work with distinguished scholars and practitioners to create a new kind of communication school, developing innovative interdisciplinary programs that enable us to figure out how to help people acquire the new competencies required for full participation in contemporary life.
As I read Caleb’s Crossing on my iPad, I couldn’t help but have a highly personal response to this remarkable coming-of-age novel which offers readers a close-up exploration of the state of in-betweeness. It’s a major theme of the novel. We feel this state of mind as we see the young Native American boy, Caleb, encounter the strange world of the English settlers, and through the novel’s narrator, Bethia, the minister’s daughter, who gains insight on the intense beauty of the natural and spiritual world through her interactions with the Wampanoag natives of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600s.
The state of in-betweeness is personally relevant to me. I’ve been living with it for many months, as I have anticipated the move from my beloved urban lifestyle in Philadelphia to a new life in Rhode Island, where the waves and the natural world are close at hand. Reading the book helped me see with precision the exquisiteness of the state of being in-between. As Geraldine Brooks has captured it, it represents a place of possibility for both Caleb and Bethia as their encounters with the “other” create opportunities for deepening their personal and social identity.
Having a personal response to literature like this is certainly among the most profound joys of my life. It happens when people can not only decode and comprehend the little black squiggles, but when they feel deeply engaged in the reading process. Having a personal response to literature demands a confident stance toward reading. I’m lucky to be an empowered reader.
But I’m aware of the fact that many people never get to experience this pleasure. There are far too many reluctant readers in our society today. Too many people grow up today seeing reading as merely a chore, another set of hoops they must jump through on the way to graduation. Lots of people – and perhaps some here today – feel the urge to blame the iPad, the videogame, and the TV for this situation. But there’s no point to that.
Today, it’s more important than ever to stop the either-or thinking that pits print media in opposition to digital media. In fact, the world of mass media, popular culture and digital media can help engage readers and promote intellectual curiosity. One example of this is work of filmmaker Anne Makepeace, whose film, We Still Live Here, offers insight on the experience of contemporary Wampanoag people who reconnect to their cultural heritage by reviving their native language. Digital media is not the enemy of print reading. Educators, librarians and authors — and ultimately all citizens– must recognize and exploit the many synergies that exist among the various types of new literacies that are emerging today.
In many respects, we are –all of us– living at a time of historic in-betweeness, as the world has shifted from a print-centered cultural environment to an increasing digital world. We may mourn the impending loss of wandering the stacks, cracking open the cover of a new book, feeling the weight of it in the hand. Yet we find ourselves surprised and pleased by the thrill of using new tools and technologies for the transformative practices of reading and writing. Living with iPads, e-books and digital media, I’m intensely aware of how many people are out there for me to discover and learn from. Like Caleb and Bethia, I relish the sense of possibility of self-discovery that results from being in-between the print and digital worlds.