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Review: The Rise of Writing (Brandt, 2014)

Review: The Rise of Writing (Brandt, 2014)

Looking for a text that discusses shifts in American engagement with writing in an increasingly digital age? Deborah Brandt’s (2014) The Rise of Writing might be a book you should check out.  



As Brandt writes near the opening of her book,

"When it comes to what is new about literacy these days, digital technology tends to capture the attention, as it is likened to the printing press (only speedier) in its radical impact on communications and social organizations (Bolter 2001, Eisenstein 1982). But this attention glosses over what may be a more radical – if quieter – transformation, namely, the turn to writing as a mass daily experience.” (3)

Drawing on theory and interview data, Brandt works to identify some of the salient features and experiences associated with this turn to writing as a mass daily experience – what she, in the title to her book, terms “the rise of writing.” Perhaps most provocatively, Brandt’s take on literacy and on writing practices reverses what is becoming a trend in present day commentary, suggesting that literacy is in a kind of decline in the age of digital media. This perspective is perhaps best represented in the work of Nicholas Carr, whose best-selling 2010 book The Shallows – a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction – argues that technological advances alter or jeopardize our traditional engagement with cognitive processes fundamental to literacy, including sustained attention or memory.



Carr’s model of 21st century literacy – “shallow reading” – is something that Brandt counters in her text, arguing,

“Whatever the fate of deep reading, we are just now entering an era of deep writing, in which more and more people write for prolonged periods of time from inside deeply interactive networks and immersive cognitive states, driven not merely by the orchestration of memory, muscle, language and task but by the effects that writing can have on others and the self.” (160)

In many ways, Brandt’s text opens the space for more questions than it answers. What, for instance, are the practical, pedagogical implications for the changes she identifies? What, practically, needs to change in terms of our curriculum and assessment, in order to match the changes now taking place? Still, The Rise of Writing is an important contribution to conversations about literacy in the digital age. Read a copy, and it might alter the way you think about reading and writing thereafter.


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