29 July 2008

Share the Road

There's a whole lot interesting about Motoko Rich's "Literacy Debate: R U Really Reading" in the New York Times. This first installment in a series on digital versus print explores the generational reading gaps in a family of four. The header photo says it all: dad reads the paper, mom curls up with a novel, kids glow in front of their Mac laptops. It's a Gnostic paradise, gathering for family togetherness time but each one engaging a separate activity. The children more distant still, they practice the subtle art of "social networking" and "interactive fiction" from the safe confines of a virtual reality.

And in this article, we read about young Nadia, the melancholy would-be poet, the product of her technological age.

I recognize the irony of my embedded complaint. I read the story online because we don't take any newspaper at the house. I'm logging my complaint about it online in my unkempt blog. But I spent the morning unpacking cherished books and reading from two others (not to mention children's books): real books with glue and binding and pages. Some of the unpacked books include ones self-published by Great-great-great-aunt Laura Crews, whose words aren't online for young Nadia to ever encounter, much less change.

Maybe I'm just an old Romantic who shares with my husband an affection for the smell and look and texture of books. Maybe I'm an elitist who still believes that old adage that to write well one must be a good and generous reader. (Apparently, one must now qualify this remark by saying that a writer must not only be a reader but a reader of books, including old ones.) If so, I hope to remain this kind of elitist Romantic for a very long time.

My own flaws on this front are too numerous to mention, though I must to continue: in short, I have not read nearly so many books as I own, nor do I read or write as much as I should. So it is not the high-standing achiever who laments Nadia's story; rather, it is the struggling imperfection in me that longs to be a better reader and writer and cannot stand to lower the standards.

"What about Nadia's story has got you so worried?" you ask. Two things:

1. She prefers online fiction because she can change it to suit her own interests and desires.
2. She wants to be a writer.

Regarding #1. Some might say that she's really getting into the story, interacting with it, so what's the problem? But whatever happened to the authorial craft? Whatever happened to catharsis? Whatever happened to reading as an experiment in something different from what you already know and want? I too have wanted to change stories I have read (haven't we all?) but I don't have the liberty to do so, and that's part of what lets fiction do its job. That is, fiction forces us into uncomfortable situations that we then must work through; we are the readers, not the writers.

For example, I would love to make Willoughby less of a lout, because there's something about him that I love too, but I don't have the liberty because Austen made him that complex lout, and there's a beauty in that for the reader: I have to deal with his complexity and not just change his narrative line to suit my interests. Sounds like real life.

Now, regarding #2. What about Nadia's desire to be a writer? Scratch that; she's already a published writer online, having authored a story with a misspelling in the title. Grammar fail.

Nadia would like to be an English major but "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." Something in my gut hurts, and bad, every time I read that paragraph.

Please give me one good reason why someone who does not want to read books should major in English. Perhaps you would offer that such a person should major in English because she wants to write. Good: then she must also read . . . books. Want to be a poet? Read poetry books. New ones and old ones, very old ones. On my desk right now are several books of poetry, half by living poets and half by dead ones. There's also a tab open in my internet browser with another living writer's poem, linked to an audio recording. Just because you are a human being with emotions and an affection for language does not make you a poet. (Of course, having poetry books on your desk and a poem open in a tab does not necessarily make you a poet either.)

If English ever becomes a major without that kind of reading, I don't want to teach it anymore. And if writers ever quit reading books, I don't want to try to be a writer anymore.

Ms. Rich does a fine job in her article of responding to Nadia's comment that college entrance does not require reading books. After all, she may be right. But Ms. Rich writes, "The simplest argument for why children should read in their leisure time is that it makes them better readers." Statistics prove that's good for college entrance exams and future employment. The history of humankind proves it's also good for general life.

Last weekend, I attended a conference on classical education, where we chanted the glory of helping children think about ideas rather than merely learn how to test well. So maybe my conscience is particularly pricked toward the true, the good, the beautiful; since that conference, I have felt more keenly my love for books and ideas than for my Mac. True, I've spent more time today with online pages than printed and bound ones, but I still love them more, partly because they last, and I think every writer should.


Micah said...

maybe Nadia could rent Dead Poets Society and watch it a few times?

Jen said...

Yes, good enough. Precisely the idea.

kinseyatoz said...

Oh - such wonderful words. And read in digital form on the computer. I too am a lover of books. I love the feel and smell of the pages - an added bonus to the words therein. However, I must admit that I love my Kindle. For this aging body, not having to hold a heavy book, keep pages open and being able to adjust the font size are quite nice features. However, it's the words that stay true and exciting and anticipatory and revealing and illuminating. I still get the rush of reaching the end of my Kindle book and starting a new one. (By the way - MANY (thousands) of the classics available for free - next on tap - War and Peace!) But, Jen, thank you for your wonderful insight into the need for reading - in whatever format.

Jen said...

As much I don't want a Kindle for myself, I'm at least for it--it's at least text from full books in as much of a book format as you're going to get without having physical pages to turn. So it's not for me, but it's still achieving the goal here.

So read on with your War and Peace!