Sunday, November 25, 2007

Good Grief, Study Shows Youngsters Are Interested in Formats Other Than Hard Copy Books!!!

An open blog entry to fellow members of the New York City chapter of the National Council of Teachers of English:

Boo Hoo! It’s just not fair! (sniff, sniff). We literacy educators stake so much of our claim to the cultural high ground and so many of our aspirations to more-intellectual-than-thou status on our rock solid belief in the holy sanctity of a communications format know popularly as The Book, and those darn kids just want to play video games, read one another’s FaceBook pages, and listen to Hip Hop… (sniff).

Exaggeration? Consider the NY Time article of 11/19/07 “Study Links Drop in Test Scores to a Decline in Time Spent Reading” which agrees that is “…the message of a new report released by the National Endowment of the Arts, based on an analysis of data from about two dozen studies from the federal Education and Labor Department and the Census Bureau as well as other academic foundation and business surveys.”

I am no researcher or statistician, merely a professional educator of 35 years experience, a published author, and clear thinker - and without taking on the formal dimensions of these studies (which really just restate and rehash a series of concerns and attitudes that have been heavy on our collective mind for a long time) I’d like to offer some opinion, perspective, and optimism.

First, we need to acknowledge that the vast majority of written (and one would assume read) text published these days is on the web, the VAST majority. Our population is obviously reading, although it is not reading books (those generous collections of hard copy pages sandwiched between other hard things called covers).

Second, direct experience in writing, editing, and publishing web sites informs me that the same skills used in writing books are employed in this activity as well: pre writing organization/outlining, first draft and repeated revision, it’s all there – as well as publishing and feedback from readers –experiences that unpublished hard copy writers don’t often have access to. I wonder how many of my NCTE chapter mates are aware of the above, I mean to the extent that they’ve actually authored sites and uploaded them, activities that I assert are needed to put all of this dreaded ‘loss of The Book’ philosophizing into useful perspective.

Third (and here’s where I really hope to generate some enemies) we have to understand the history of this format called The Book. Think back to those Phoenicians inventing writing through the development of cuneiform. Do you think they would have opted for scribing in wet clay had Microsoft Word (in their language of course) been able to boot up out there in the hot Mesopotamian sun? And those Egyptians with their papyrus scrolls. Wouldn’t they have opted for a high resolution digital display if Dell or Lenovo or Hitachi had outlets in a mall by the Nile? And Guttenberg. Wouldn’t he have opted for an easy to use HTML authoring program like DreamWeaver if it had been available, and then uploaded his pages to a stable server running Apache? After all, he was interested in getting his bible in front of as many eyes as possible, wasn’t he? And of course with language translation software like Babelfish, they all could have spoken their own language and not slowed him down much.

And finally, what about those authors like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain? Would they have chosen long hand with quill and ink, hand pulled hard copy editions in small numbers, and a readership limited to that small minority that could read? Or would they have used an iMAC to produce a digital video carrying their thoughts and voice and uploaded it to YouTube? We’ll never know for sure, but these guys were creative souls with restless intellects and NOT interested in conforming to or maintaining the status quo. They WERE interested in communicating directly to an audience motivated to hear them and I think they would have been interested in reaching people where the people were at, and as many of them as they could.

Finally, I need to say that I love books and fervently want to share my love of books with young people who I sincerely believe will be better off by adopting this love. Of course I understand that they love video games (which any observer of communications with his eyes open will understand is in reality a new publishing format) and hopefully want to share this love me and members of my generation and are absolutely certain that our lives will be enriched by adopting their love for it, too.

Where does this leave us? In a very good place, I think. If we are to promote The Book we can no longer assert that books are all kissing cousins to Moses’ tablets, handed down from the almighty himself, and therefore not to be questioned as the supreme format. No, we’ll have to do a little reconceiving of the true value and place for The Book in our world, an exercise that can only help. Finally, as we ponder what is special about books we will have to promote, write, and publish books that make this special nature clear and take advantage of it and through it produce works and programs to present them of high value for 21st Century readers and the ages. That’s the way to pay homage to this format and preserve it.

As an old Chinese proverb states “It is far easier to ride the horse in the direction it is going!” Good advice for all those riding the Book Horse. No doubt this was first published in hard copy (after a long life in purely oral format) and now, in a seamless transition to a contemporary medium, is uploaded to this blog. Hey, good words and ideas transcend format.
Mark Gura

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