Thursday, December 20, 2007

Reading Class

As a parent, I despair.

There’s no reason to think that reading and writing are about to become extinct, but some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special “reading class,” much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become “an increasingly arcane hobby.” Such a shift would change the texture of society. If one person decides to watch “The Sopranos” rather than to read Leonardo Sciascia’s novella “To Each His Own,” the culture goes on largely as before — both viewer and reader are entertaining themselves while learning something about the Mafia in the bargain. But if, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change. A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable.

Schools, I suspect, have given up. A friend has a bright daughter, 13, in what is considered the best public school system in the county. They are required to read a certain number of books on their own. But the teacher accepts as "books" manga illustrated novels. These are comics with hard spines.

My teenage son reads the occasional book on his own. He finds eclectic stuff -- travel narratives by the doctor who treated the Elephant Man, for instance. Recently he read "Seven Gables" for school and he's reading "Portrait of the Artist" on his own now. He's enthusiastic about what he reads. He gets into it. He finds things under the story, he appreciates the style of the prose. He reads for pleasure.

But he does so little of it. There's so much else to do with his time rather than pick up a book.

Dave Schuler has been writing about one consequence of this, under the heading visualcy.