Two recent studies from the National Endowment for the Arts ("Reading at Risk" and "To Read or Not to Read") found that Americans are reading less, and less well, than they used to. The studies have prompted much discussion: What does it mean for our culture and what can be done about it? Some of those who have joined the conversation are asking yet another question, one that might fairly be framed as a challenge: How do we define reading? ¶ As media change, so do the ways in which we read, argues N. Katherine Hayles, literature professor at the University of California and editor of "Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary" (University of Notre Dame, March 2008). ¶ "We shouldn't confuse 'reading' with codex books," she said in a recent interview. "We need a broader definition of the function of reading and the sort of literacy necessary for reading."

A CD accompanying Hayles' book ("what we might think of as sample readings for major works in the field") drives home the point. Among other examples of new literature, it includes the first episode of "Inanimate Alice" (, a computer game-like narrative featuring a young, globally and digitally astute girl growing up in the 21st century.

"Inanimate Alice" has three creators: Kate Pullinger, a novelist, screen writer, radio script writer and faculty member of the Creative Writing and New Media Department at De Montfort University in Leicester, England; Chris Joseph, a digital artist, writer and composer who co-created the digital novel "The Breathing Wall" with Pullinger and Stefan Schemat, and Ian Harper, producer and CEO of BradField House, a new-media production company in London.

It's not surpising, given these many combined gifts, that "Alice" is lushly cinematic. As the first episode opens we hear eerie static, like a radio trying to connect. The audio clue is apt; in many of poor Alice's adventures she is scared and lost.

At first Alice is 8 years old, living in a remote part of China, where her father is "looking for oil." But he has been gone from their camp for days, and she and her mother take a harrowing trip on a bumpy rural road to look for him. Frenetic moving images and Joseph's dark electronic music evoke a visceral reaction: This girl is in danger.

And it keeps happening. In the second episode, both parents are missing, leaving her alone in a cabin on a mountain in the Alps as night -- and heavy snow -- begins to fall. These narratives resolve themselves, but we're left with the twitchily uneasy feeling that something much larger is wrong.

Perhaps most interesting is that we never see Alice herself, only artistic representations of the things she sees and feels. To watch the story unfold we must interact with the pink handheld game player she takes with her everywhere. She uses it to talk to Brad, an animated character she made herself and considers her only friend.

These early audio and visual clues unfold over the course of 10 episodes (only three are completed) to tell the larger story of a woman who becomes a successful computer game designer.

Some of the story's elements have grown out of digital culture (games, dynamic web design, computer-aided music composition). But the creators of "Alice" say their goal was to mimic and build on the experience of reading a book.

"For me Alice is an attempt to carve out a space in our rather noisy media world for a kind of online reading," Pullinger said from her home in London. "It incorporates text, sound and image, but in some ways it bears quite a close relation to reading a book. I'm really interested in creating a story where people will want to do the equivalent of turning the page."

Pullinger said the same elements that drive momentum in a book are present in the digital realm: narrative, character development, atmosphere and space.

"Literature is about two things, really: our need for story, and great writing, beautiful writing," she said. "I guess when people worry about the face of literature, that is the element that they're talking about: somebody who really knows how to put those words on the page. But even that in itself has all kinds of different possible meanings."

Hayles compares "Inanimate Alice" to the illuminated manuscripts of William Blake. "He produced and conceptualized the books he wrote, and no one doubts that this had a profound influence on their meaning," she said.

"Alice" has found reception in different realms, including the classroom, and has been translated into Spanish, Italian, French and German. It's a featured project in the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008 ( and has been exhibited as a piece of digital art in several countries and screened at film festivals.

It's all part of the multimodality, multimedia, multitasking reality for young readers, which "doesn't need to be viewed as a threat," said Pullinger.

"In many different ways we're at quite a critical point right now," she said. "The Internet is going to become increasingly a visual medium, with YouTube and people watching television online. This is the moment for creating a kind of new literature -- which sounds grand, but in a modest way that's what 'Alice' is trying to do.

"We need to get on with that now."

Katie Haegele is a writer and graduate in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philadelphia. She can be found at