Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Book larnin' versus online sarfin': where's the best reading?

Burgess Meredith used to love books;
that was before he met Rocky I to V.

Can you be a voracious reader without ever picking up a book?

The question crossed my mind today on the bus, where I was reading the awesome book, One Day. I'm normally a non-fiction kinda guy, but this book has me hooked.

Expecting my fellow bus riders to notice the book (and, of course, my great taste by association), it was instead I who noticed that they couldn't care less about my book. Or maybe anyone's.

Even the book's bright and colorful jacket didn't help - it's still no match for the glowing cell-phone screen o' pleasure. But wait: is that reading too?

If my observations are correct, and I'm Winnipeg's Burgess Meredith, loving my books while those around me prefer to read and write text messages, it makes me wonder what we should be doing at Red River College to forward reading and writing skills in students.

It comes down to two outlooks:

1. The Internet (and its henchman, the cell phone) is the natural enemy of reading, literacy, culture, concentration, learning, and all that's good and right and decent in the world.

2. The Internet is a new and better kind of reading that makes books - and all other media - obsolete; it's more engaging than books, and more intellectually stimulating than TV.

I agree with both, which is to say that I'm torn like an old dollar bill. Thank you, Screaming Trees.

Engagement versus discipline

As every instructor knows, job one in the classroom is "engagement." Whatever you can do to get students to be interested and participate is all good, girlfriend. That means that the Internet wins, right?

Uh, not really. Job two is to instill the self-confidence, discipline, and skills that students need to survive and thrive in the workplace. Can you survive and thrive if you have a two-second attention span, can't follow a narrative, and don't have the stamina to make it to the end of a book?

What's worth more to employers: your ability to finish a book or to surf the net? Reading comprehension or Internet proficiency? Quoting Herman Melville or Perez Hilton?

The New York Times says that reading comprehension is a skill that is still valued as "very important" by employers. Moreover, "those who score higher on reading tests tend to earn higher incomes." That means that books win, right?

Uh, not really. Because there are those who believe that the Internet has brought us a new kind of reading. Who's to say that the ability to quickly absorb video, words, sound, ideas, and conversation isn't as valuable as, say, the ability to read and appreciate the poems of William Blake?

The siren call of the ringtone

As the Internet slowly gobbles up all media, will there come a day when it will be unrealistic to expect a student to read an entire book, online or otherwise?

My observation is that most students still read books. But most of my students are in Creative Communications, which means they're predisposed to read. Even so, the groans that greet the assigned books in Canadian lit class get louder every year.

Likewise, most students can still put their cell phone aside during class, but every year there are more who can't resist the siren call of the ringtone - the modern-day equivalent of Pavlov and the drooling dog.

If people can't stop texting while they drive, is there any hope of stopping them from texting while they learn?

"I don't really like books," a student once (sheepishly) confessed to me. He said he liked late-night talk shows more than he liked books, so I gave him my copy of Bill Carter's the Late Shift and never got it back. His new, favorite book or a doorstop? Lie to me!

Read between the lines

The easy answer here is that we all need to do all kinds of reading for all kinds of reasons: we need to read for fun, enjoyment, entertainment, intellectual stimulation, emotional satisfaction, to advance at work, enhance our education, and simply get through life.

That means reading emails, websites, contracts, brochures, menus, ads, articles, instructions, text messages, instant messages, signs, letters, Post-it notes, and - oh yeah - books.

To deny yourself even one part of the broad sweep of reading possibilities is to deny yourself a deeper enjoyment and understanding of life.

To the library!


  1. I still love books. Literature is deeper than stuff you can find on the internet, and in many ways, more enjoyable. But I do admit that when doing research I tend to go towards the internet and online journals over books in a's just more convenient.

  2. I think books make people more thoughtful, and the Internet makes people more efficient...maybe.

    But, yes, nothing beats the convenience of the Internet.

  3. Each medium brings its own positives and negatives to the table.

    The internet is the ultimate research database, because of the sheer volume of information that is available, as well as the timeliness of that information. However, as we all know quantity doesn't equal quality. Because there's so much online, there's a lot of duplicity. You can visit 6 different pages, only to find the content for all of them was pulled from a Wikipedia article. A lot of times I also find that the info you find online is superficial.

    A great example for me was the Critical Journal assignment for Chris Petty's Visual Dialogue course. If you're writing a 400 word essay on a piece of art or an art movement, online can be hit and miss. But a trip to the library will yield several books written entirely about the subject from which to get information.

    Books offer great focus and information that has been compiled and filtered specifically for the subject. An example is the types of books I read. I only read non-fiction books on advertising, psychology, business, leadership, etc... These books contain huge mountains of informational gold, examples and support from studies and experiments, and even a level of wit that I seldom find online. If I were to google any of those subjects, it would return hundreds of pages of often useless results, with no focus or depth to them.

    Some of the problems with books are that they can be out of date by the time they hit the bookstore shelf, they take more time than most people are willing to invest in them, and most are too big to keep in your pocket or purse.

    Summary: Internet = Width
    Books = Depth

    This argument won't be solved anytime soon. The only thing I would add is that whoever coined the phrase "Leaders are readers, and readers are leaders" probably wasn't referring to the glorified skimming of info online that many people think constitutes reading.

  4. Wade: your comments never disappoint! You are the true ruler of comments - I wish I could have them in advance of writing the blog...

  5. Ahh, but therein lies the crux of the issue, dear Kenton. Were there no post, there would be no comments.

    All we can hope for as bloggers is that we raise an issue that interests someone enough for them to compose some well thought out comments. And those type of comments are gold because they lead to dialogue-the goal every blogger should strive for. If every post I put online created some dialogue I could die a happy man. A poor ass man, but a happy man nonetheless.

  6. Time enough at last. Helpful hint from Burgess Meredith: keep an extra pair of reading glasses.


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