This Is Not Writing; You Are Not Reading

The Paper of Record has a hilarious article, “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” which asks important questions about what Those Darn Kids are doing — spending their time using a mixture of hot media and cold media delivered to them over the internets.

I’ll get right to the point before I start ridiculing the ridiculous, and answer the question. No. Of course not. It’s not really reading. This is not text. It is not the product of hot lead type lovingly smearing a mix of kerosene and soot over wood pulp. It’s a bunch of pixels, and those pixels are whispering directly into your brain. You are not reading, you’re hearing my snarky voice directly massaging your neurons. That doesn’t happen when you read. People don’t see things or hear things when they read. Ask Anne Fadiman if you don’t believe me. She knows.

Let’s look at some of the statements in the article:

Few who believe in the potential of the Web deny the value of books. But they argue that it is unrealistic to expect all children to read “To Kill a Mockingbird??? or “Pride and Prejudice??? for fun.

It is unrealistic to expect any children to read Austen. Austen is arguably the second best writer in all of English, but she requires emotional experiences that children do not have. Pride and Prejudice is no more children’s reading than 1984 is. Trust me on this, I know. I read 1984 when I was ten, and when I re-read it in college, I was gobsmacked to learn that there is sex in it.

Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents. Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers.

They said pretty much the same about Dickens. Until relatively recently, no serious scholar of literature (read college professor) would admit to reading Dickens. Personally, I agree. These days he’s considered a classic, and the non-serious scholars won’t admit to reading him.

Last fall the National Endowment for the Arts issued a sobering report linking flat or declining national reading test scores among teenagers with the slump in the proportion of adolescents who said they read for fun.

And of course we can fix this by denigrating what they do read, as opposed to finding things for them worth reading.

“Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media,??? Dana Gioia, the chairman of the N.E.A., wrote in the report’s introduction, “they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.???

I’ll do my part. I resolve to start writing my blog posts, okay? Do you want them in printing or copperplate?

[Synopsis: Nadia’s mother tries to instill a love of books in Nadia. Nadia does not respond until they get a computer, when Nadia gives up TV for fanfic.]

Now [Nadia] regularly reads stories that run as long as 45 Web pages. Many of them have elliptical plots and are sprinkled with spelling and grammatical errors.

Which the masters of modern literature such as Pynchon and Joyce would never do. Austen never had elliptical plots, they were circular, and she was merely eccentric.

Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,??? she said.

And this is a problem?

Reading skills are also valued by employers. A 2006 survey by the Conference Board, which conducts research for business leaders, found that nearly 90 percent of employers rated “reading comprehension??? as “very important??? for workers with bachelor’s degrees.

I don’t know about you, but I wonder what sort of people the 10+% of employers are who think that reading comprehension is not very important. What sort of Dilbert-refugees are they? I find that “nearly 90%” to be disturbing.

Some literacy experts say that reading itself should be redefined. Interpreting videos or pictures, they say, may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem.

Ah, the word “may.” I’ve ranted about it before. It is true that interpreting pictures may be as important as analyzing a novel. It certainly is if you want to appreciate El Greco. But that’s not the point. As much as I like sneering at moderns who think Dickens is literature, times change. It may, indeed. Joyce may have written grammatically. Austen may be suitable for children. Reading comprehension may be important for workers with bachelor’s degrees. And Shakespeare’s works may have been written by another man of the same name.

I am disdainful of hot media, but the Web is the rennaissance of cold media. It’s an aberration in a slide to hotter and hotter media. Also realize that cold media is relatively recent. Most of human history had its literature in songs and pantomime.

Lastly, remember that kids have been no damned good for as long as we’ve been writing at all. The pinnacle of civilization was when we were in the caves, and it’s been a long slow slide into perdition ever since. Every generation is worse than the previous one. It will continue to be that way. These kids are going to sigh with exasperation and not understand why their kids roll their eyes at Sailor Moon. And they just not going to understand the true art form of fanfic and slashfic. Tsk.

3 thoughts on “This Is Not Writing; You Are Not Reading

  1. You can predict a literature critics response to anything based on two simple rules:
    1. Nothing written in the last 50 years is any good.
    2. Nothing that the masses actually want to read is worthwhile.
    They decried Harry Potter too.
    I honestly think that these kinds of attitudes do a lot of damage. By convincing kids that books are tedious things to be slogged through only when required for school assignments, they turn people off to reading at a young age.

  2. “Austen is arguably the second best writer in all of English, but she requires emotional experiences that children do not have.” That’s as elegantly put as I’ve seen it, and true of 90%* of what they make you read in high school. I read The Stranger for the first time as an adult and felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach.
    I’m perfectly happy when my daughter reads Magic Treehouse books or plays spelling games on Webkinz. She’s having fun. As long as she uses her brain a lot – whatever the medium – it’s good.
    (*Arbitrary number. Liberal arts major.)

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