Matt Smith

On Reading

Is the golden age of reading truly over?

Last night, I was thinking about reading. And what it occurred to me to ask was, perhaps the age of reading is over? Reading and writing evolved at a time when there were no electronic communication mediums like we have today, nor even the means to create images other than by hand, which was a laborious process (and which, by comparison to the image produced by even the cheapest of instant cameras, yields distinctly ‘inferior', or far less than lifelike results - people forget what a miracle photographs were to people who had only ever seen hand illustrations).

And in this context, it was the cutting edge of home entertainment; if you wanted an adventure, or some romance, or some other momentary respite from the real world, the written word was it. Therefore, even though reading is a skill that is very burdensome to develop, there was a lot of incentive early on in the piece to do so; if you stuck at that oh-so-laborious task of learning symbols and learning to translate them into meaning, and became practiced enough at it that it was no longer so arduous, or something you became very proficient at doing, the reward was that suddenly you had access to the DVD player or MP3 player of the time. Which, of course, in the present day, because they're the cutting edge of communications technologies (not to mention their role as a status symbol), are highly coveted pieces of equipment - books, and the ability to read them, we might imagine were once like that as well.

Naturally enough, being able to read stories wasn't the only benefit that accrued from becoming literate, although I would like to suggest here that for many a plodding reader the desire to have the imagination fired up in the way movies or video games might have that effect today was the light at the end of the reading tunnel, or kept them struggling until they could do it - your prospects in life became that much better, because you could communicate with people across space and time in ways that hitherto would have been impossible. Once also you attained the ability to read stories and enjoy them, and read a lot of stories because you enjoyed them, because reading was suddenly so cognitively less demanding more serious stuff would suddenly have become more appealing - you could realise how marvellous it was to learn about the world, or about the theories and facts that describe our world. Or, how personally enriching, even though it is very alienating, it is to expand upon one's knowledge.

What I'm saying here is, in other words, that reading is hard work, sufficiently so that the labour involved is enough to put people off doing it; but, that in early days if you stuck at it you ended up with the ability to access the internet of the day - there was a lot of incentive to develop that ability, because in this context the rewards were enormous.

Now though, we have new communications mediums that, firstly, are more naturally intriguing to the human brain - they offer images, moving, real-time pictures, and sound all at the same time, and many of them are much more interactive. Furthermore, they are by no means as cognitively demanding; you don't have to translate as much of the information being juggled between your brain and the medium into symbols, or engage as much with this cognitive ‘lingua franca', because a lot of the information is already in its primary form. So, suddenly, as many an English teacher has lamented, the incentive to stick at learning to become an advanced reader - the entertainment value of reading - has gone, or has been surpassed by other forms; these other forms, really, instead of maligning them offhand as ‘non-intellectual', we have to realise are actually more sophisticated ways of exchanging information than an orthographic system. The possibilities for our students are, that is to say, two-fold - firstly, whether or not new communications mediums are superior or inferior to writing, people prefer them for entertainment, and so reading becomes a lost art from this direction (no entertainment, no continual practice, and thus minimal consumption of the information contained in the Gutenberg continuum).

Secondly, these new communications mediums are more sophisticated than plain old writing, or can do all that books can plus a lot more, furthermore with less effort on the behalf of the consumer - from this direction too, rather than trying to push books on people like ballet or classical music, it needs to be recognised that reading in its traditional form is, at the heart of it, perhaps these days increasingly an anachronism. Don't get me wrong, nobody loves reading more than I do - in retrospect, however, what sets me apart from most of the other people in my generation is that my mum and dad absolutely prevented me from accessing electronic media, leaving only reading to pick up on in their stead. In addition, it is clearly obvious that if the purpose of writing is to communicate ideas from one brain to another, I can at least see the potential for newer communications mediums to be better at doing this, or better at fulfilling this role, than written text. What could there be written in a book, in other words, that you couldn't conjure up with a video and digital effects - about the only drawback I can really think of to the latter technology is that if you were confined to that, you wouldn't be able to get the ideas of Aristotle or Charles Darwin firsthand, because they are no longer around to record them in this format...unless, of course, someone ‘re-mediated' them for you, so perhaps if we had skilled interpreters this is not so much of a drawback after all.

I wouldn't go the whole hog and say, however, that this is the time when encouraging our students to read should be left at the educational wayside, and all books exchanged for information recorded in electronic formats - the problem, quite obviously, with that idea, although it may one day become valid, is that the best information is still transcribed in writing. In my opinion, even the best stories are still to be found in written format (personally, I can never get it out of my head when watching movies or shows that there are cameras giving me my perspective, or that out of sight of the narrative there are all the accoutrements of the stage - i.e. that none of it is real in any way, it is all a ghastly masquerade) - the most important ideas in the world, moreover, in terms of progressing the human worldview, are still definitely only to be found in written format, the best information for by far and away the most part just isn't available in any other form. The way new mediums are used greatly complicates the issue as well; it is still upholders of only a particular type of worldview that produce most of the information available on electronic mediums in forms other than plain writing (the mass media remains a form of social control), and so if one doesn't encourage one's students to read in the hopes that one day they might start reading a diversity of academic literature, one is really consigning them to a life of slavery (or at least to a life of being ‘ting-tong'). Which doesn't, we might then add, do wonders for the Earth's environment, or for the human species either.

So as teachers, then, if all of this pondering actually means anything, here are our choices. We want our students to become better at the English language, and to absorb more of the facts and theories that describe our universe. So, we can either deprive them somehow of other types of communications mediums, so that reading becomes once again the preferred form of entertainment, and let their thirst for knowledge develop in this way. Or, we can engage with and encourage the rendering of human knowledge into multi-media forms. About the only time we have power over a student's life to the extent we can make reading the only form of entertainment is when they are in class, there is fat chance of making this the case at home - so, I guess the moral in this case is that time under the teacher's supervision needs to be devoted to reading, hopefully in this way they could develop the taste. In regards to multi-media, the immediate imperative would seem to be to make sure that the students are exposed to messages outside your usual corporate and other types of controlling propaganda - really, our job is, if we can't find such material already available, to assist in remediating all written knowledge into this more transmissible form.

As a final observation, too, I can see now how the world went so backwards in so many ways in the latter half of the 20th century, or since the advent of electronic mass media, or why people forgot that the beauty of scientific enlightenment and the printing press was that it saved us from the feudal system and started to make us press for things like democracy, public ownership of things and social equality - electronic mass media prevented a lot of people from becoming advanced readers, because they got their entertainment in other ways, and the only information that was left in their brains in lieu of this was once again the very stultifying message of those who seek to pull our strings to their own ends, or a message that inevitably has this effect. If you like The Matrix, the electronic mass media was the matrix - people who choose to ignore this message, I guess, are those who keep eating the blue pill.


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