Are books dead? Will I one day welcome children into my home only to have them gawk at the antiques lining my walls? Will they point at my collection of books and say “Wow! I’ve only seen those in the library museum!”
Sven Birkerts writes that ” a change is upon us—nothing could be clearer. The printed word is part of a vestigial order that we are moving away from—by choice and by societal compulsion.”
I used to laugh about this happening in my old age, but after returning to school from a 30 year hiatus, I have been faced with the fact that this may come about long before I’m ready for Shady Pines retirement home. Our society has rapidly and ferociously turned into digital media zombies.
The Millennials in my classes don’t read text books.
These students grouse about having to purchase books and complain that the chapters are too long and boring. I was astounded to see what our text books look like compared to the “old days”. The front covers are emblazoned with large print declaring web sites and apps that accompany the book. Upon opening the cover, I see pages filled with pictures, info-graphics, Short definitions along the side, boxes of non-linear information that interrupt the narrative, and LOTS of color. It may be a text-book, but in some cases I feel like I’m looking at a static page from the Internet. To my baby boomer eyes (yes…I AM the last year of the boomers) it’s very disconcerting and obnoxiously busy.
It’s not that I’m stuck in the past, but you have to admit…reading traditional text has worked pretty well for a long time. Some will argue that reading on electronic devices is the same. In some instances, they’re correct. There are words on the page (electronic or printed) that you read sequentially. I generally like Nooks and Kindles. You can read the classics and literature that stimulates critical thinking skills, or lose yourself in romance novels and Science Fiction. I even like the option to look up a word on the spot, create an electronic bookmark, share books, and carry darn near a library’s worth of books in one neat device. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that humans are lazy by nature. Wait – By technological nature. We create technology out of need, but mainly out of convenience. Tech allows us to do things faster and easier, or not at all. We transfer so much work to technology with the idea that it will free us up to do “more things”. But usually those “things” involve more technology that takes up more of our time. In essence, we artificially extend time (and shrink space) only to fill it back up with more stuff to do because “we can”. Yeah….
Don’t get me wrong, the art of laziness has catapulted innovation to new heights. Taking the easy way out is a great things when it comes to many of the tedious chores we once had to do in order to live. But reading is an activity that is dynamic, active, and challenging. When our lazy kicks in, we would rather watch videos and cut to the chase with pictures and info-graphs. While we’ll get the information needed, it doesn’t activate the brain in the same way reading does. Passively watching the video “Of Mice and Men” doesn’t activate the imagination. Everything is supplied for you…..lazy. Enjoyable, but lazy.
There is an ever-increasing amount of reading available on the Internet, but how much do people actually read? More often than not people are skimming bold print, looking at videos, popping onto hyperlinks, reading summaries and darting about to different stories in a non-linear fashion. Back in 2008, Nicholas Carr focused on these very questions in, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
The digital platforms have created new forms of writing. In my digital media class we learn to write in short, concise phrasing that can be read on the small screens of smart phones. Tiny screen, tiny phrasing – Tiny thoughts. The human brain is capable of complexity of thought and a depth of understanding that are not nurtured by paraphrased blurbs attached to a kitten video.
While most people will tell you that no one reads books any more, especially the young, the actual numbers might surprise you.
So reading is alive and……well, its alive – but it’s changing.
Reading on new new media’s digital platforms for free comes with some, well, distractions. The old adage, “There’s no such thing as free” comes into play here. Free means putting up with lots of ads, links, widgets, and images to distract the reader from the content. Linearity goes out the window and a developed story competes with sidebars.
I can give a personal account on watching young adults in college between the ages of 19 to 25. This group of digital natives are attached at the hip to their digital devices. All have smart phones and many have tablets, iPads, ultra-books, etc. But I see them spend most of their time scrolling through their feeds on Snapchat, Instagram, and video platforms. They love memes, videos, short cartoons, and captured pictures. They love people’s amateur movie clips and excerpts from TV and cable shows. They like “the best part” and often don’t want or need to see the rest. Snippets. It’s all about snippets. They spend hours in, what I consider, mindless activities.
My generation did the same thing with TV. Short of PBS and its attempts to educate us, TV was largely a vacuous display of entertainment that required little thinking. At least that’s what the experts said. But we are all products of the society we’re born into. While I can’t really point the finger at this generation for doing anything different, I can point to the fact that they don’t read text books. They may read parts, but the whole thing? That’s crazy talk. If you look back at the reading graph you’ll see it says “read a book whole or in part”. I think there “in part” number would be much higher than the “whole” number.
Previous generations had few options other than books to find information. Now the bombardment of information people receive via the Internet is astounding. We can find anything on the Internet but, advertisements abound and the eye cannot decide where to settle on the “page” of a website. It’s no wonder no one is reading much content.
My professor in Media Criticism has shared that his editors warn against making manuscripts too long. He says readers prefer shorter books even if it involves a series to finish the story. Can anyone say “Hobbit movies”? As we speed into the future we keep finding ways to condense our communication. Text, tweets, Memes, info-graphs, and videos are truncated forms of communication that seem to be eclipsing traditional reading. For those of you that like to read, you can enjoy this piece on the future of reading. It has some rather interesting insights.
And here’s a video to entice some of you non-readers
I don’t think any of us can accurately describe where reading will be in the years to come. Technology’s fast paced changes are impossible to keep up with. By the time we’ve figured out what happened, we’ll be launching off another precipice into the unknown.
Society doesn’t seem too concerned. Maybe the fact that we’ve managed to survive and evolve with every technology in the past has given us a false sense of security. Like a Henny Penny warning, we’ve all heard it one too many times to care. But…what if the sky really IS falling this time?