Columns / Discourse / April 23, 2014

The end of the word?

Recently al-Jazeera English ran an article with the provocative title “Is reading too much bad for kids?” Though the headline gave away the conclusion (as if doing too much of anything could be a good thing), I gave into the click-bait and saw what it had to say.

It was actually a very well-written article. The author was a father worried that his book-loving son would be alienated later in life from his digitalized peers. “Are we raising a child for the 19th century rather than the 21st,” he wonders, “training him on the harpsichord for an Auto-Tune world?”

The question is worth thinking about. It is not that reading is going away by any means. It will be a long time before they invent a smartphone that pumps tweets straight into your brain without the mediating role of the printed word

Book reading, though, is something unique. Picking up a book and reading it to the end is a very different act than scrolling through the internet reading words on different pages for hours. It extracts from the reader a certain amount of attention and devotion in a way that increasingly few other things in modern life demand.

That is why it is legitimate to be concerned about a hypothetical “end of books.” There is certainly no shortage of statistics and anecdotes if you are looking to despair over the state of literacy in America. In the above article, for example, there is a Rhodes Scholar quoted who said that he does not read books anymore because Google is so much more efficient.

He may be onto something. Certain kinds of books are absolutely dying and will not come back because the Internet fills their role so much more effectively (encyclopedias, for example). Yet I don’t see this happening to all books.

It is important to never be fooled by romanticized notions of the printed word. Simply picking up a book and reading it has never inherently made you a better person.

There are books that make you think well, those that make you think badly and those that do not make you think much at all. Defenders of books sometimes act as though only the first category exists.

We may lose the latter two groups to electronic competition at some point, but if the teens of 2050 get their paranormal romance stories (or whatever the 2050 equivalent of that is) entirely via online streaming video I won’t be overly troubled.

Fear of an increasingly online world comes from the danger of losing the abilities for reflection, empathy and thinking that stem from reading good books, but I think we are a long way from that happening.

There is still a strong cultural respect and appreciation for good, challenging and thought-provoking books. Maybe we don’t read Shakespeare on dead cellulose anymore, maybe we read him on our smartphones or holograms or whatever else we have in the future.

What it comes down to is whether or not people still engage with that first category of books: the ones that make you think, the ones that make you consider new perspectives, the ones that stick with you. As long as there are humans, there will be someone seeking that, which is why the book — whether on paper or on hologram — will endure.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

Tags:  al-Jazeera English books culture google Internet literacy online reading

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