28 December 2011

for whom the medium is the message...

Telling stories without words. George Méliès, 1902
"Enough is enough. No more computers, cameras or consoles. No more watches, neckties or perfumes. Heck, no dead tree, no annoying lights, no overstuffed duck, either. I’m casting an ink-and-paper pall over the holiday, whether Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa: This year we’re going to give each other a book.

"A real, hold-in-your-hands paper book. Nothing more, nothing less. Already, the book edict has gone out on paperless email to the two key recipients of holiday love: my children. Noses have been turned up, derisive shrugs have been given: What a downer the old man is. A book? Come on."
The above was the holiday missive from International Herald-Tribune "senior editor" Kyle Jarrard, who went on to describe how all the folks say about digital devices and distraction are nonsense, "I’ve been known to drive the car while reading. Reading is the answer to everything, I’m fond of saying. More long stares have been given in my direction for years regarding my inability to not read," and finally to describe himself as absolutely and completely clueless about literature in general...
"A book allows you to time-travel, or just plain travel to real and imagined places, a not un-neat trick considering the price of airline tickets or space tourism. It allows you to meet evil, wonderful, mysterious, odd, crazy, fun, and not-fun people who often end up being more “real” in your life than real people. A simple tome of paper links you back, for instance, to the age of François I, Renaissance poet and book collector supremo, when the printing press and its wild spread across Europe was as exciting to us all as are e-books today."
Mr. Jarrard is, of course, the kind of easy target I enjoy beginning an argument with. His argument is so patently ridiculous that it creates its own parody, but, as I hope you know, if he was alone in his self-deception, and probably if he wasn't a powerful personage in the world of news distribution, I wouldn't bother.

But he is not alone, and his is a powerful voice, and so there is a problem.
Faith in a medium. A scroll made of sheepskin, lettered by hand.
No vowels, no punctuation.
Now, I can "show" Mr. Jarrard how he might travel to space or even back to 1954 New York City without touching paper, without even opening his eyes. Or how he might travel to space or back to the 14th Century without decoding a single letter, but is this really necessary in this second decade of the 21st Century? Really? Must we point out to an educated, responsible, journalist that one can read and understand Genesis even if it is printed on paper made from cotton or wood-pulp, and printed mechanically? Must we point out to someone like this that blind people managed to understand books even before Braille was developed? Or - perhaps more significantly - must we explain to a senior staffer in The New York Times organization that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were great literature long before anyone had ever written either of those "books" down.

visiting space without the smell of paper and ink

Mr. Jarrard, like too many in education, has a faith-based belief in a medium. Actually, his - their - belief is much narrower than that. It is a faith-based belief in an industrial process, in paper-making machines and rotary presses, for it is a belief in "print," not even in "text." To this group Homer and Socrates were illiterate morons, incapable of experiencing literature, the Blind are a sad, pathetic group forever banished from the corridors of knowledge, and anyone who accesses a newspaper on-line is exchanging depth of understanding for convenience.

And that is very sad. Or worse than sad. It is a kind of evil, an insistence that one's preferred medium, or in this case, textural and olfactory experience, is superior to any other. It is the worst kind of cultural imperialism.

Y. The Last Man. Book One.
My house is full of Christmas books this week. They range from an epistolary novelI gave to my "spousal equivalent" (a Gary Stager term), to a collection of Shel Silverstein storiesdone for Playboy Magazine in the 1960s, to the Momofuku Milk BarCookbook, to Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck, to the first three Vertigo-Paperback installments of Y: The Last Man, a graphic novel.

All tell stories, all take the "reader" places they perhaps have never been, just as the stories included on our #ccGlobal St. Nicholas' Workshop Christmas Site do. There is no actual hierarchy of information delivery here, no matter how anyone, Mr. Jarrard or otherwise, wishes there were. Stories are told well or badly, effectively or ineffectively, entertainingly or boringly, imaginatively or not, in ways accessible to the many or the few, no matter the medium. Poor Shakespeare does not rank below Tom Clancy because he worked in the Elizabethan equivalent of television rather than print. Socrates is not a lesser light than Malcolm Gladwell because he spoke his words and never had them printed and bound. Charles Dickens, that "blogger" of the penny-paper era is not less important than Jack Kerouac even though Kerouac chose to write, like those ancient rabbis, on a scroll.

Brian Selznick, author but child of film-makers, has worked out a literary
mix of comic book, cartoon, and text for himself.
It is essential that we understand this now. It is essential that we stand up to those, from Mr. Jarrard to those who push "Common Core" standards, who seek to rank media in a hierarchy according to their personal preferences and in order to preserve their own status, wealth, and power ("I am important and intelligent because I am highly literate.").

Our students can, and will, tell stories in many, many ways. They will read stories in many, many ways. Sometimes they will read certain ways because that is how their brains work - which is neither, I need to tell you, neither better nor worse than the way yours works - and sometimes they will read certain ways because that is their preference, and thus their human right. And sometimes they will read certain ways because that is the way the author offers access to the story, and sometimes they will need help to convert media because the author's preferences and their needs do not match up - I understand - I have witnessed professors and teachers reading Shakespeare, and though this seems odd to me - the performances are routinely available via YouTube - I do not criticize them. Perhaps they can not hear well, or perhaps they cannot easily sit through a whole performance.

So give your students stories this year. And give them the freedom to tell stories. The medium may matter, but the medium is only the message if the message can effectively be received through the medium chosen. Otherwise, an unreceived story, is, well... not much at all.

- Ira Socol


  1. Ira, this resonated so much. I got delightfully lost along the way in the many stories you link to and isn't that a point as well. The narrowness of the Common Core with its one method of reading (close reading)echoes the points you make in the post--as if there was one way to read and children should endure learning that way for 13 very long years. Reducing reading to 'being a detective' is foolish at best.

    There's little reference to multiple types of text in the CCS and there is the presumption that book can substitute rather easily and exclusively for text. There is also the deliberate reduction in 'fictional' text (I keep circling back to essays I read that include, in fact often rest on--'fictional [or narrative] techniques), and wonder if the CCS folk actually read/listen/view essay. They seem rather limited in their views.

    And perhaps that is a point too. Imperialism rests on limiting people's faith and language. The English Penal laws in Ireland sought to both. How we name matters and limiting the means to do so is nothing less than criminal.

    So yes, tell stories. Receive stories and do it in ways that make sense. The only hierarchy among those ways are the one's we apply. None are better than any other.

  2. An A.P. telling me last year that students couldn't have laptops on their desks/tables during "reading time" was one of the big reasons I'm no longer working in just one classroom. It has personally worked out to be one of the best moves of my life. I'm finding that my intention to have a direction like that be delivered to as few teachers as possible in the future is actually quite widely shared in the world beyond that building and district.

    My own kids got new iPad 2s as Christmas gifts (generous relatives) to accompany their Windows computers, Android smart phones, iPod touches, PSPs and Wii. They both still haul around way too many books in their backpacks and have way more print magazine subscriptions than I could imagine when I was selling GRIT subscriptions 50 years ago.