Monday, July 28, 2008

Hey Kids, Reading Can Be Fun

Never got around to posting this yesterday- Ann Althouse links to this New York Times story on the debate over the relative merits of "internet reading."

It's fascinating to me that the real issue is obscured by the debate on the relative merits of the internet. The real reading crisis (if there really is a crisis) is not so much about the internet as it is about literature and the seeming lack of time spent with novels and the long form written word. One need only look as far as the young woman, Nadia, featured in the Times story to see what I mean.

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.

I hope I'm not the only one a bit disturbed by that comment- Shouldn't wanting to major in English and wanting to be a writer mean you spend some time, you know, like actually reading books. Shouldn't you be familiar with some of the classics? As a matter of comparison, how many computer science majors can you think of that don't spend some of their free time fiddling around with computers.

Framing this as being about the internet is a bit absurd. There's a hell of a lot of good non-fiction reading one can do on the internet, particularly when one learns basic research techniques and how to weigh the relative merits of sources. There's nothing inherently superior about a textbook. Nor does a political treatise need to be read in book form to fully appreciate it. As Ann Althouse points out, the skipping and browsing one can do on the internet also has it's place on the printed page.

Even in terms of fiction, poems and short stories can be fully appreciated when read on the computer. Again, there's nothing inherently superior about the printed word. Technically, this same logic applies to long fiction, however, I'm not sure how much is available online, nor do I think many people avail themselves of such opportunities. To come full circle here, the real issue isn't how people read, but what people spend their time doing. Maybe Kid A spends a lot of time reading the Wall Street Journal online, while Kid B spends all his time reading the MySpace pages of his peers. To discuss internet reading as if it were one phenomenon is to treat reading Teen People as no different than reading Oliver Twist.

As I mentioned before, the biggest reasons for changes in reading practices are the technological changes which have drastically changed how we spend our free time. Just go back to the 70's when there was no cable, no video, and no internet to take up our time. TV options were limited so people of all ages certainly had more time to spend reading. From personal experience I can say with some regret that I read far less fiction than I used too. I would guess that some of those hours previously spent reading fiction are spent on the internet, while other countless hours are spent on long form HBO dramas or shows like Lost, which bring a different sense of storytelling to the small screen.

To blame the internet alone for our apparent national decline in reading ability is just ignorant. Back when I was growing up, we had no internet, but most kids I know spent a hell of a lot of time playing Nintendo. Technology matters, but where it really matters is in the macro sense of how we spend our free time. As regular readers know very well, I'm never one to buy into panic or hype- but I said it earlier and I'll say it again. The little budding English major who doesn't read books is a scary proposition.


Blogger McMc said...

I find it very disturbing that a wanna-be English major/wanna-be writer isn't reading, but not only that, thinks she doesn't have to. In fact, she acts like the real hurdle is just getting into college. It's sad really, because a lot of young folks these days think they can just do the bare minimum and be successful. Kids want to be writers because they think it's easy but if they don't read they're depriving themselves of so much, whether it be vocabulary, influence or ideas. I was a journalism major in college and I was shocked by how few of my fellow classmates didn't read the paper. I know this isn't exactly what you were talking about in your post but it's a pretty interesting phenomenon among the college-aged.

2:17 PM  

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