Monday, April 06, 2009

Enough Negativism!

by Barbara D'Amato

Literacy is not in nearly as much trouble as the doomsayers believe. Publishers Weekly last year [6/11/2008] summarized a Scholastic report that in younger children 82% like or love reading. Twenty-five per cent read for pleasure daily and another 53% read for pleasure one to six times a week.

For fifteen to seventeen-year-olds the reading for pleasure figure drops to 55%. Well, duh. Teenagers are in the midst of social, academic, and hormonal pressures that eat up time. However, they are reading and writing in ways that we hardly even notice.

When I was a child, in parts of Michigan, children could leave school after the eighth grade. And there were places in the U.S. where they didn’t have to go that long. I knew a lot of people that were in practice illiterate. We wrote essays in school, but most of us had no other occasion to just write. My granddaughter emails me every few days. Did I ever, as a child, even consider writing to my grandparents? Maybe once when we were on a trip I sent them a postcard.

These kids we think aren’t reading and writing are texting, tweeting, instant messaging, and blogging their little hearts out. Twenty years ago did you ever see kids on the school bus writing letters? Nope. But now they surely are. Their thumbs and styluses are going like mad. They don’t even realize they’re writing. They think they’re having fun.

And they read what the other kids write back, too, of course.

Worried about all those abbreviations, short-cuts and symbols? I’m not. They’re useful.

On one of the listserves recently, a person posted a humorous announcement. Most of the readers took it as funny, but one or two were outraged at what they saw as arrogance. Now, the poster could have said at the beginning “This is going to be a joke.” Or at the end, “This post was meant in fun.” But either sentence would be pretty lame and would detract from the humor of the post. However, if she had followed the post with :) or ;) the meaning would have been clear without the clue being obtrusive.

Let’s not forget that all language probably started as pictoglyphs. A lot of languages today remain glyph-based.

People texting, IM-ing, tweeting, and so on are manipulating symbols for the purpose of communicating. I call that reading and writing.

No, it’s not all fabulous prose. But it never was. Have you ever looked at “home” writing from, say, the 1900s? I have a friend who collects postcards of Saugatuck, Michigan. The pictures are fascinating and often beautiful. Not so much the messages on the back:

‘Wish you were here.”
“Such a beauniful [sic] place, and with sandy beaches.”
“Been here a week and it rained every day.”
“Granny got poison ivy.”

Our view of the wonderfulness of writing in the “old days” is skewed. The letters that survive and have been collected are the wonderful ones, and they were one-in-a-million cases even then.

My granddaughter is writing on something called She writes stories based on a book she’s read, a movie, a play, or a TV show. Some kids riff on a comic strip, games, anime, or cartoons. She says, “Once your story is posted online anyone can read it, and people review it.” Her email to me ends: “I suggest exploring the site.”

There are more people writing today than ever before in the history of humankind.


Sarah Wisseman said...

Barb, how fantastic that your granddaughter is writing--already! My father would call this a "hereditary taint"

Dana King said...

hanks for this, Barbara. Like you, I get tired of hearing how no one reads, book sales are down, there's no hope for writers, and typing causes knuckle cancer. Adult books sales were actually up a tick last year, and I agree with you: kids who email and text a lot are far more likely to read and write for recreation, as they already are by emailing and texting. Why would they limit these activities to only those two media?

Now if we can just get the public schools to stop beating this love of reading out of small children as effectively as they do...

Marcus Sakey said...

Nice post, Barb! I'm with you.

I feel the same way about people who Chicken-Little the death of books. First off, I don't see that happening. Second, even if the market shrinks a little, books are only one means of communication, and much as I love them, my deeper love is for story. If books are down, it's likely because, say, videogames are up. And human nature and the marketplace are going to demand that those games be increasing sophisticated, in terms of not only play, but also emotional content and thematic value.

I guess I'm an optimist, but the moment someone starts to talk about the sky falling, I start to doubt their understanding of history. We are today less violent, better educated, better fed, better clothed, better housed, and better off than in any time in human history. We just like worrying about it.

Dana King said...

I'm going to piggy-back onto Marcus' comment. People like to point to specific things and say they show the decline of civilization. This is because they are largely ignorant of history. Pick a book or movie that got the essentials of its period research right, regardless of what you thought of the story of production. DEADWOOD, or maybe GANGS OF NEW YORK. I've been both places; it's better now, even on the worst days.

Guyot said...

I'm the guy who sees the sky falling. With all due respect, most authors I know say things are great - and I can understand why. I really can.

But when asked to give reasons why they feel that way, I rarely hear anything other than the "This is the greatest period in history!" argument.

As for the PW summary, you must take it into context. A little research into this showed that just twenty years ago, over 70% of teens of read. As to book sales being up - it's skewed. Remove the movie-mentality marketed books - Harry Potter and the like - and you see a very real and very steady decline.

And I respectfully disagree with Barbara that all this text-speak and misspelling of words is equivalent to literacy. It's a comforting thought, but I don't buy it. Kids texting each other, tweeting about the minutia of their daily lives, hiding behind the anonymity of a keyboard is NOT the same as writing. And yes, twenty years ago kids weren't texting and tweeting on school buses - they were talking face-to-face with each other, they were engaging in human contact, learning how to interact human to human.

Why do you think the alcohol and drug problem on college campuses is at its highest in history? Well, when students are interviewed with the guarantee of their identity not being revealed, they say it's because they have no idea how to be themselves in public, how to deal with social situations. Yes, kids have always felt awkward and struggling with your identity is tough, but we're making nearly impossible today.

I see our society being dumbed down at an alarming rate. The instant info/instant gratification/complete reliance on technology generation that will be running everything in twenty years scares the hell out of me.

The upcoming generation has a bias against the "old school" ways, and vice-versa - because we have all made it a war as opposed to trying to dovetail things for the greater good. I don't think anyone has a clue as to the impact the death of newspapers and true journalism is going to have on our society, as well as this ostrich mentality of "We're all smarter than we've ever been!"

Twenty and thirty years ago, teens and 20somethings wanted to learn, wanted to gain wisdom. Today's young ones think they already know it all. And yes, I know teens have thought they "knew it all" since the dawn of time, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about this Internet age where you put up a blog and that means you are the equal of Jimmy Breslin. If you comment on the Huffington Post, then you are Tom Brokaw.

But I digress.

I am always stunned when people say the death of books is NOT around the corner. These are the same folks who point at history to prove we are such a civil society, but then they refuse to look at history - specifically the last twenty-five years - to see a transformation from books to technology that cannot be stopped. It is a runaway train at this point.

Video games and the like are not heading for more sophistication in their storytelling, they are heading for more interaction - as is everything. Making the reader/player/watcher a PART of the story. Which goes to my above point that the next generation is so entitled - they think there should be no separation between reader and writer - that we're all equal. Which again, sounds nice on the surface, but once you begin to tumble down that path, where do you think today's author is going to end up?

Lastly, (then I'll shut up) is this argument about what a civil society we are. People love to point to the days hundreds of years ago when the streets ran with blood. For me, you cannot compare different centuries, different societies. That's like trying to compare Tiger Woods with Bobby Jones - it can't be done. To truly see how well we're doing, you look back at the current society - where are we compared to 20, 30, 40 years ago?

Is racism "down" (for lack of a better word)? Probably. Is violent crime down? No. Is violence against women down? No. Is violence against children down? Not even close. Are we better fed? God, yes. To the point of gluttony. Better educated? Yes. But I don't equate education with wisdom.

But hey, this is all only my opinion, and I am aware that I'm in the minority. And nobody hopes I'm wrong more than me.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Hot dog, Guyot! What a great response. I will answer it in a little while, right after I've finished my email.

David J. Montgomery said...

I wish I believed that reading and meaningful literacy weren't dying out faster than the ozone layer. But I don't.

I think the type of "micro-reading" that we're talking about with txt and Tweet and FB and all the rest is actually COUNTER to real literacy, because it trains the mind to read only in rapid bursts, to absorb pure information (usually meaningless information) without appreciating the greater context of sophisticated thought, or the subtlety of language, much less the beauty of it.

Think of it this way -- if you're raised on a diet of reading Tweets, is this useful training for reading a novel? Or is it going to make a novel seem like the most ponderous, dense, complex, absurd thing you've ever seen?

I hope kids read. God, I hope they do. I fear that reading for pleasure is dying out. I fear that the omnipresent distractions of electronic media will further drown out the quiet voice of books.

However, keep this in mind -- all predictions of the future are essentially worthless. So hopefully I'm utterly wrong.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, Sarah, Dana and Marcus for your good responses.

David and Guyot--I don't entirely disagree, and I love a good lively discussion. I just don't remember the kids I went to grade school and high school with talking about favorite books they were reading. Or for that matter my own children's school friends. Not like kids talked about Harry Potter--before the movie ever came out. And I see my grandchildren reading avidly, even though they went through a stage of playing Warcraft, sometimes for hours, on weekends. It doesn't seem to have ruined them. My granddaughter has a friend who actually brings her reading books with her when she comes to visit.

And Dana, I agree that schools should be more careful about discouraging the love of reading.

Re: Sean Chercover's and Michael Dymmoch's post last month about the loss of newspapers. I hate to see them go, but I hope they'll morph rather than die.

I suppose much of what we're disagreeing about is not the interpretation of statistics but anecdotal, what we see young people around us doing. And while my grandchildren are the finest people ever to walk the planet, I don't think they're the only ones reading.

On a slightly different note, one of the funniest things [and maybe this relates to questions of the effect of technology on human contact] is to see two kids texting on the school bus to EACH OTHER across the aisle!