Reading – new times, new forms

In literature studies, the very first thing that is defined is literature. In summary, there are two definitions: a very open one (everything is text) and a more restrictive one (literature includes texts published as books). And indeed, everything is text.

Our language gives us an indication when we talk about reading each other’s thoughts, or reading each other’s tracks, or reading someone’s feelings on their face. We read much more than letters and words, we read art, we read the subway plan, we read the clothes of our neighbor (when he leaves the house in his suit and tie in the morning, does he go to work, does he do the same in the evening, he probably goes to an event), we read the flowers (red roses for the person we love, white lilies for the wedding, gladiolas for the deceased) and, yes, we also read the emojis and GIFs in the WhatsApp news. So, we read and identify text everywhere and at any time of the day or night.

If we define literature as everything that appears in book form, then it is safe to say, that not all of us read all these kinds of texts, especially not everywhere at any time of the day or night. The book is an integral part of our culture, but by no means the only one. Besides the book, the television is the most important source of information, and the new forms of communication, social networks and the Internet are just as important or even more attractive.

We read much more than letters and words, we read art, we read the subway map, we read the neighbor’s clothes, we read the flowers and, yes, we also read the emojis and GIFs in the Facebook-Messenger news.

Soledad Marquez

Books seem to have lost influence in a global context, and especially in South America one loses the habit of reading; a tendency that is reflected in studies on the subject. In Chile, the most read country in South America according to UNESCO, 51% of the inhabitants read an average of 5.4 books per year. However, the reasons for reading are disappointing: 35% of Chilean readers read for academic reasons, 26% read to inform themselves and only 7% as pure leisure pleasure. When we see these figures, it is no longer surprising that according to a 1998 study by the IALS (International Adult Literacy Survey), more than 50% of adults in Chile were classified as functional illiterate. This means that every second adult Chilean can read and write, but neither can understand what they have read, let alone analyze it.

Reading is not only the action of recognizing letters and the composition of letters into words to recognize whole sentences. Reading also means understanding the information in the text, drawing conclusions from the text and assembling information from various texts into new information. These skills are defined as remarkable reading comprehension. And it is precisely what must be cultivated while learning to read to store the information of the texts read. In this context, it is surprising that a 2006 publication of the Universidad Technological Metropolitan reveals that less than 25% of Chilean graduates show the remarkable reading comprehension skills mentioned above. It was also found that students at state universities read more (about 75.5%) than graduates of private universities (about 58.2%). (Source)

When we read statistics on this phenomenon, I keep noticing that although we compare the readers of the last three or four decades, we do not correlate the reader shares of the last three or four centuries due to a lack of figures.

Soledad Marquez

When you read these studies and understand what they mean, you tend to be frightened. The figures are high and if we compare these figures with those of the European developed countries, it destroys us. In Germany, for example, 44% of the inhabitants buy books regularly, 11% of Germans read a book daily. Chile is very far from this. Nevertheless, a decline in book sales and reading per se is also being registered in Germany. And the German book trade complains annually about declining sales figures. This leads to the tendency to interpret this situation as a global loss of reading habits overall.

When we read statistics on this phenomenon, I keep noticing that although we compare the readers of the last three or four decades, we do not correlate the reader shares of the last three or four centuries due to a lack of figures. Let us try, with a little common sense, to analyze the situation: we know that reading was a competence reserved for very few. They were aristocrats, for a long time only the men among them, especially the first-born, who could read, and they did it not as a hobby, but to exchange information, write letters, read cards, do accounting. Reading as a leisure activity was never a hobby of everyone, in fact reading could only become popular through the invention of book printing. And only those who had the means to send their children to school and buy books could afford the luxury of reading as a mere leisure activity. It should also be noted that in the 18th and 19th centuries, a time when access to school education was already more widespread, there was no media competition with books. Leisure activities were opera, theatre and books. Those who had the financial means to gain access to these leisure activities did not have to make so many decisions.

Now let’s talk about access to public libraries: in Germany they open until late in the evening, and on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays; in Chile, libraries are only open during normal school and working hours, and close when pupils, students or workers have the time to visit them.

It is very important to realize that all these obstacles, both those that Chileans and Germans share, such as the amount of alternative leisure activities, and those that only affect Chileans, such as the opening hours of public libraries, cannot prevent readers. The fact that there are fewer readers in today’s world than 60 years ago and more than 120 years ago is a normal cultural development that must be accepted as such. However, the book will not be removed from culture as a media option, and there will certainly be times when people read more than they do today. I can imagine that in the future, when Netflix and the social networks are no longer so “hip”, there will be a return to the texts, perhaps more in their electronic form. We see that cinemas complain about fewer visitors, that newspapers complain about fewer readers of their paper formats. Perhaps we should let humanity find its own way of integrating culture. Opera and theatre continue to be an integral part of culture and have found their niche and loyal followers. And I think it will be the same for books. Everything is text, and who knows, maybe there will soon be books that use Emojis as part of the letter repertoire.

This article was written by Soledad Marquez in response to an article published by Claudio Rigo-Righi Abascal. You’ll find him here: Reading, a forgotten habit

The Editors