Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Book larnin' versus online sarfin': where's the best reading?
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!