The Lost Art of Reading and Writing

Reading and Writing DisappearingIn all the seat pockets of my Amtrak train to Chicago were glossy flyers advertising the Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Book 1 books and videos. That’s a marketing package any author would die for — links between books and videos advertised daily to thousands of potential customers. No wonder Jeff Kinney has sold 75 million copies of his Wimpy Kid cartoon books.

I have looked through the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” The drawings are cute, but the idea is not original and I found the text uninteresting.

“Diary” is a book for our times: Big print, easy to read in one hour, diverting but not challenging, leaving little trace afterwards. Maybe it means we have come one step closer to a future without books.

Books are an endangered species. Reading itself, as entertainment and education, has long since been replaced by more visually stimulating pastimes: Television, video games, smart phones.

In the past 30 years writing has changed, too. First email, then texting and now Twitter have encouraged a transition from constructing paragraphs filling pages to throwing together short messages of acronyms and abbreviations, bullet points and emoticons. In such simplified communications, grammar, punctuation, and spelling are ignored, because they’re not needed.

Many of my students, whose entire schooling has come in the age of texting and Xbox, are no longer familiar with books. Reading one assigned book in a history course, much less half a dozen, is an unfamiliar and possibly painful chore. It can be difficult for them to maintain concentration on any text longer than a couple of pages.

With less reading comes poorer writing. For the first time in a long career of reading student prose, I am given papers by students who can’t distinguish between “where” and “were.” That’s also an error in pronunciation. Many students have difficulty reading complex sentences out loud, with little idea how to sound out unfamiliar words. Basic reading skills can no longer be assumed among college students.

This is not just the lament of a grumpy greybeard longing for the good old days. In one lifetime a cultural revolution has replaced the primacy of reading books with other mental pursuits. Like all previous generations whose time has come and gone, I could, and occasionally do, complain about the end of civilization. But more useful is to wonder how we should adapt to a possible book-free reality. When the most basic means of the transmission of knowledge suddenly falls out of favor, what should educators do?

Librarians have been trying desperately to preserve the relevance of buildings created to hold and distribute books. Will those wonderful temples to popular reading created across America a century ago by Andrew Carnegie and many others, of which Jacksonville has a fine example, simply turn into computer rooms with unusually high ceilings?

Steve HochstadtWill e-books on Nooks delay the death of sustained reading? Should authors hire cartoonists to illustrate every page with drawings, because readers are no longer able or willing to translate long strings of words into visual images? How will we communicate complex ideas within a 140-character limit?

Or will we all be too busy playing Madden football?

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on December 18, 2012
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."