Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What If They Can't Read What We Write?

I came across an interesting article in the New York Times a while ago, about how the internet may be irrevocably changing the way children and teens learn to read, including what they read, and how they read.

Right now I teach in a country that has no history of literacy, where the current generation being educated is the first generation that will have acquired wide spread literacy. This is happening at the same time that internet use has become ubiquitous amongst these youths. From what I have observed so far, the effects include an almost violent antipathy towards reading any long or long-ish form text, be it fictive or not, and an unwillingness to write anything at all outside of online bulletin boards, text messages, e-mails, or instant messages.

While I could place most of this to aspects of culture prevalent in this society (For 95% of my students, the only book in their households is a Qu’ran, and fiction is completely verboten), I am beginning to wonder whether a variation of this trend (pathology?) is gaining momentum in the Anglosphere.

In any number of articles about the ever oncoming e-book revolution, a time when, experts predict, text perused electronically will pass some critical threshold after which the printed word will begin to fade, there is always a caveat to the effect that the tangible pleasure of a book in hand will always trump pixels on a screen. And it makes sense, for us. For us old codgers, coots, grannies, and grumps that is.

We the elderly (Over 25) can all remember a time before the internet, when computers were an interesting, but expensive curiosity, and when the only way we could “download” a movie, show, song, or book was if we got ourselves down to the library to pick one up. For us old folk, the feel of a book in hand as we curled up on the couch or lay on our sides on the bed to read, informed a great deal of our early lives. For many of us, it was the most personal, intense form of pleasure we knew (At least until we went to college…). For many of us, it still informs our lives today, in the same way. But for those who have come after us, who were born in the mid-80’s and later, things have changed.

If the tangible pleasure of a book in hand was entirely absent from your early and adolescent years, there is little chance it will ever become a part of your life. When late nights were spent, not curled up under a lamp with a novel, but on MSN chatting to ten people while updating your status on Facebook, and refreshing your MySpace page, books became something to put on a shelf, and nothing else. They become nice objects, on display for guests. Quaint curiosities, like Great Grandma’s silver snuff box, or Uncle Charlie’s pocket watch. Relics all, from another time, with no place in the present, other than as a reminder of the past.

This, then, brings up a schism of sorts that will soon start to become more apparent in our society. The terms I use to define the sides of this schism are BG and IG. The Book Generation, and the Internet Generation. All the angst over the past decade about Gen X, and Gen Y, and how Baby Boomers in the office sometimes find it hard to relate to their younger colleagues, is nothing compared to what is to come. Workplace tensions today are often over differing views of work/life balance, and worldview. Yet these differences exist on the same plane, shared by different sectors of the Book Generation. The Internet Generation doesn’t exist on that plane, they exist in an entirely different dimension. How they think, process information, communicate, network, prioritize, and act is completely dissociated from their predecessors.

When it comes to reading, what the IG reads, and how the IG reads, is different. In Japan today, some of the biggest blockbuster novels never even come close to a bit of dead tree. Instead they are read on mobile phones, written in serial format, for the medium, by those who write exclusively on that medium. Chapters arrive, a la a Dickens novel, in parts, over time, with eager readers dying to learn what happens next.

This poses a problem for the Book Generation, for whom long form texts are a pleasure and a joy, because the constraints of the new media where the IG exists are antithetical forms and conventions that have flourished in the past.

We can write, hone our craft, learn the forms and conventions and traditions that have shaped and defined literature for hundreds of years, but what of our readers, our IG readers? What if they can’t read what we write? And conversely, what if we can’t write what they read?

What then?

Do we go gentle into that good library?

Rage, rage, against the dying of the page?

What do we do?

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