It is often said that writers should be avid readers. Whenever you see an image of a great author or successful writer, they always seemed to be surrounded by canyons of books–not just a simple bookshelf, mind you, but enough volumes to give even the most voracious reader a case of mental heartburn. I think that image will be changing soon, given the move to electronic media. It could very well be that today’s writers—e-journalists, self-publishing novelists, and bloggers like myself included—will not be pictured seated in a den in front of a massive book collection, but shown in transit holding our trusty traveling companion, the tablet. As such, I wonder if today’s children will ever want to read a physical, printed book again.
I am neither a great author nor a successful writer (yet!), and if the stereotype has some truth to it (as they often do), then I may not be either in this lifetime. The amount of books I have in my possession would barely fit a modestly sized bookshelf. Those that I have managed to collect are textbooks, plays or manuals–all leftovers from college classes. My iPad actually has a more impressive roster of authors, from Dickens and Melville to Hughes and Bellow. Yet, those too came to me as the result of filling required reading quotas. There is anarchy in the gathering; Friere sits next to Dr. Seuss and both serve as constant reference materials, while Othello and Macbeth collect more dust than Shakespeare’s coffin. My anime DVD titles outnumber my book titles 3 to1.
The sad part of this whole mess is, I used to be an avid reader. I could quote Marley’s visit to Scrooge at the drop of a hat, or argue for days about why I’m certain Lewis Carroll was on some serious drugs when Alice first wandered into his brain. But ask me about current works and I’d have to depend on the movie to tell you whether I like it or not…if I even saw the movie at all.
Therein lies the problem, I believe. There doesn’t seem to be a need to actually read anything anymore; modern technology can do it for us. Whether it’s listening to an audiobook, having someone narrate it for you while you see pretty pictures on YouTube, or waiting for the big-screen version to hit theaters, the necessity of actually picking up a physical book (or reading the .pdf version on Kindle for that matter) is going the way of AM/FM radio or broadcast TV–it’s still available, but quickly losing its relevancy.
Shortly after my appendectomy, the director of the education department at Teachers College suggested I do some reading of children’s books. Me being the tech-head that I am, I immediately started looking for .pdf versions of books I could download for free. I bypassed reading altogether when it came to Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”, opting for the animated version I knew existed online. I didn’t have to read “The Velveteen Rabbit”, because I had the great Meryl Streep in my ears.
The closer I get to starting classes, the more i worry whether this generation will come to view the reading of physical books as old-fashioned or time-consuming as I do now. Not just because I want them to actually read my books someday, but because I wonder if they will lose the power of imagination. As many times (and in as many different forms) as I’ve seen the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appear in front of Scrooge, the image I have in my mind as I read it is always more frightening than any I had seen in a movie. Yes, my mind is twisted that way. I feel that reading uses an entirely different skill set than simply watching a movie based on a book. Sure, the movie may show you the terror of Smaug the dragon without your brain kicking that fear up a notch, or Katniss’ mad hunting skills without having to deal with her running monologue, but those things are handed to you pre-packaged. I think it is more fun to imagine who the perfect Mr. Gray would be than to see someone who doesn’t fit the part at all; or to be a kid and act out all the parts of your favorite book before it becomes the next CG-animated box-office hit.
I don’t mean to say that reading in and of itself be dismissed anytime soon; in fact, I think that those in the Internet Age and beyond will depend on literacy to keep up with each other. Even though text-to-speech functions are available on both word processors and chat apps, and there seems to be an icon for every action, the online world is still mainly text-based, which means it involves a lot of reading. And while English appears to be the dominant language, there are more than enough translators (both online and off) to assist non-English speakers. And while physical books may be seeing their sunset, online publishing is moving in the opposite direction, with even novice writers getting their ideas out there on sites like this one.
Another worry I have is the short-attention span we seem to be fostering in our culture. In an era where cursive handwriting is a lost art, and contemplative thoughts are reduced to 140 characters or less, I wonder how much time and effort someone would put into reading an entire novel. I myself have had trouble reading a 100-page book, simply because I have been too distracted by other things…and I think that will only get worse once my studies begin.
Traditional books are still being used and enjoyed by many people, adults and children alike. There are those who still actually prefer flipping pages and going through chapters to fast-forwarding to the next scene. The die-hard readers will always curl up with their favorite hardcover or paperback, because they love the smell of the pages; and I’m sure there will be kids who will want to have their parents read to them instead of Siri or some other disembodied voice. I just wonder how quickly those numbers will dwindle.