31 January 2009

Curling up with... Literacy

I love to curl up in bed with a good... story.

I am, in fact, one of those people (I think this includes more males than females but have no evidence) who has never outgrown the childish delight in absorbing favorite stories again and again ("Damn," my dad once said, as he read One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish to my then young son, "I hated this book the two hundred times I read it to you and I hate it now.").

So, at night, I can drop into bed and fall asleep to Turner Classic Movies playing familiar movies, or my computer playing the LibriVox recordings of books I already know. Slowly, my mind takes over. I stop watching the screen and just hear the words, or I even stop really hearing the words, and the world of these stories surrounds me, and leads me off to sleep.

Or by day I can sit and listen (or watch and listen). I've done a great deal of this these past seven weeks as I've tried to keep myself engaged recovering from surgery. Yes indeed, curled up in bed or on the couch with my computer and WYNN or CLiCk-Speak (or Hulu or direct download NetFlix). This wild winter raging outside the windows. New worlds, and new ranges of information flowing to me.

Am I reading?

A New York Times writer named Virginia Heffernan isn't sure. She is the author of this month's anti-technology tirade in that paper, amusingly titled Click and Jane. Let's skip Ms. Heffernan's confusion about her role as a parent, that her three-year-old child's attitudes toward what is a "book" and what "isn't" undoubtedly reflect her own beliefs, and get to the heart of what this author misses:

"Point missed entirely," says "Scott" - commenter number 5 on the associated blog (I was commenter number one! something I've never achieved before on The Times's site). "A book once published becomes a thing. It makes no difference if it is on a computer, bound in covers, serialized in a magazine, or written on the sky. The concept of “book” is not hard to teach children. The software was not trying to trick or fool Ben, it presented a book and wanted feedback on the contents. What Ben read was a book. How he read it was unimportant. Opportunity for learning missed entirely."

It is not that Ms. Heffernan doesn't realize that on-line literacy is literacy. She does avoid that mistake. It is that she - as so many "cultural conservatives" (a term I of course use provocatively) - does not understand that human storytelling is both (a) what really matters, and (b) remains a constantly evolving thing, continuously changing itself as technology changes.

These different technologies aren't "easier" or "more difficult," or more or less complex, or more or less important to our cultural history. They don't "require interpretation and imagination" or "not require" that. The cave paintings of Lascaux required active imagining and sophisticated symbolic conversion, and the film clip above (from Hitchcock's Rear Window) requires a really complex imagining of what is outside of the frame and behind the darkened windows (just as any decent first-person shooter video games does). The construction of worlds by a reader from limited authorial description is not the exclusive domain of those who absorb stories through ink on paper.

And Ms. Heffernan's child will not end up 'not appreciating literature' because she uses a Kindle (or reads her books and watches her films on her phone) and doesn't line her shelves with leather-bound volumes, if literature - of all types and in all forms - is a cherished part of her family home.

So I'd like us to stop. Please, just stop. When you read on a computer screen you are, indeed, reading. When you read Braille, you are reading. When you listen to an audiobook, you are reading. Even when you are watching a film, a TV show, or playing a narrative-based game, you are effectively reading. No, your brain isn't translating visual symbols, but it is absorbing, interpreting, analyzing, and filing information. It is building a unique "reader developed" world within the construct created by the "author." Reading changed when the Greeks started putting spaces between the words and adding vowels and punctuation (some things those ancient Hebrews skipped). Reading changed again when books became affordable and could be carried home. And again when a wide range of types of literature appeared in print (because, you know, perhaps reading Ulysses is a bit different than reading Middlemarch). Reading changed when film arrived. It is changing now. It will change again.

So stop worrying. A "book" is an idea. It is a conceptual thing. It is a story set down in a specific set of words and/or constructed images. What matters is that our children, our students, engage the broadest possible range of stories, and learn to work with them, learn from them, and to develop their own, so that they may spread their own ideas.

Unless, of course, I wasn't really reading Ms. Heffernan's story at all. The Times won't deliver where I live, so I have to read on the computer, and I listened to a lot of it.

- Ira Socol


HomerTheBrave said...

I'm reading a really interesting book called 'A Universal History of the Destruction of Books (From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq),' by Fernando Baez. It's about book burnings and other intentional destruction of books.

It comes to mind when you say books are ideas. Because Baez has been studying book burnings for 12 years and he has the same conclusion. It's not about the book, it's about the idea. One might make a somewhat heavy-handed argument that denying new media forms is the same as a sort of pre-emptive 'book burning' of the new ideas those media might bring.

However, one doesn't have to look to far to see that rock and roll records have been burned, and video games, too. These were new media at the time, and they brought new ideas during a world-wide cultural revolution. We see internet access blocked by both governments and school boards, and no doubt if someone could burn the internet they'd try.

You've frequently said that denial of these new media are really about power structures rather than simply about which media is preferred or legitimized. So when you say this:

"So stop worrying. A "book" is an idea. It is a conceptual thing. It is a story set down in a specific set of words and/or constructed images. What matters is that our children, our students, engage the broadest possible range of stories, and learn to work with them, learn from them, and to develop their own, so that they may spread their own ideas."

...you know that what you're saying is dangerous. :-)

Mama Meg said...

Hey, I wondered where you went from Xanga & here you are!
:) Hope 2009 is treating you well!

mlg said...

Here, Here, Ira! ... and I am so with you on the call "to stop. Please, just stop." Comments from HomerTheBrave accentuate the significance of digital media and the "war" that wages against ideas: the more difficult it becomes to "burn books" made of light, the more intensely the fires are apt to rage. ... nice connection, there.

All this and yet I note with some sadness the resistance I receive from digitally native students themselves when I try to teach electronic literature as a legitimate art form for the 21st century. Too many obstinately echo "Ben" in their certainty that these are not "books."

Rhondda said...

Great discussion. Love the ideas and how you have expressed them

v/vmary said...

some good news: i was able to download naturalreader free text to speech software on some school computers. although the new windows systems are blocked, and the windows 98 system was also blocked from the naturalreaders.com main site, the backup 'site 1' (also on the naturalreaders.com website) was downloadable. i showed some spec ed students how to work it. i told them to look up whatever interested them. i showed them how to adjust the speed and highlight big chunks or single words. one student immediately went to research 'monster jam' on wikipedia. they loved it.