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Jan Swafford Explains Why E-books Won’t Replace Real Books

Musicologist Jan Swafford’s article “Why E-books Will Never Replace Real Books” at Slate makes a good case for why we’ll still want printed books in the age of the iPad and Kindle (not that I needed convincing). From the article:

So real books and e-books will coexist. That has happened time and again with other new technologies that were prophesied to kill off old ones. Autos didn’t wipe out horses. Movies didn’t finish theater. TV didn’t destroy movies. E-books won’t destroy paper and ink. The Internet and e-books may set back print media for a while, and they may claim a larger audience in the end. But a lot of people who care about reading will want the feel, the smell, the warmth, the deeper intellectual, emotional, and spiritual involvement of print.

Cheat Code

Motoko Rich’s article “The Future of Reading,” published in today’s New York Times, discusses the emerging trend in publishing and education of reaching out to young readers via video games. According to the article–

Increasingly, authors, teachers, librarians and publishers are embracing this fast-paced, image-laden world in the hope that the games will draw children to reading. Spurred by arguments that video games also may teach a kind of digital literacy that is becoming as important as proficiency in print, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments, while schools are exploring how to incorporate video games in the classroom. In New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is supporting efforts to create a proposed public school that will use principles of game design like instant feedback and graphic imagery to promote learning.

Loyal readers will recall that last year I wrote quite positively about the MacArthur grant to promote gaming literacy. However, the trend detailed in today’s article seems like a big step in the wrong direction. While graphic design and computer programming are vital skill sets we should be teaching our kids, trying to hook them on reading through video games is altogether different. It smacks of cheap gimmickry that dismisses outright that reading might be a pleasure unto itself. In an age when the majority of college students can’t handle complex but necessary reading tasks and high school illiteracy rates are woefully underreported, trying to hook kids on books with Dance Dance Revolution just doesn’t seem like a great plan. If anything, it’s yet another step in the dumbing-down of America, a land increasingly hostile to anything with a hint of intellectualism–reading included. No wonder the Nobel Committee are such dicks to the U.S. Buried at the end of the article, luckily, is a voice of reason–

“I actually think reading is pretty great and can compete with video games easily,” said Mark S. Seidenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who specializes in reading research. “So rather than say, ‘Oh, books are irrelevant in the modern era because there are all these other media available,’ I would ask shouldn’t we be doing a better job of teaching kids how to read?”

Professor Seidenberg seems like a wise and reasonable man. Let’s hope that we can get this country back on track and realize that the skill sets needed to survive and compete in a technological world do not replace but rather augment traditional literacy. Video games are great entertainment but it’s hard to imagine that they could ever trump the depth and breadth of philosophy and cultural currency contained in literature. Let’s not cheat our children out of that heritage by mistakenly believing that they cannot be taught to access it.

In Defense of Pressed Vegetation

Our pal Bobby Tomorrowland recently posted a blog that lamented the passing of a time “when brainy little monographs flew off the shelves at independent bookstores, when information was shared and consumed en masse via organic materials, pressed vegetation, before we turned our economy over to the pixel and set fire to the past.” I know that Bob is a bibliophile: we’ve swapped (and stolen) books from each other for years (Bob lately moved north with my unread copy of The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, exchanging a book of anthropo-mythological film criticism in its place). Still, I was nonetheless a little perturbed by Tomorrowguy’s use of the past-tense verb “was.” Bob clarified his point in the comments thread, writing that “there’s a bittersweet realization that the ledgers, tracts and statements of the future will likely emerge in virtual — not vegetable — form.” Now, sure, “will likely” is still conditional, but it also translates to “probably.” Does Bob really believe that paper books are to be consumed by the “fire of the past”? And where does he locate the sweetness ratio of of this “bittersweet realization”?

Websites and blogs give people the ability to communicate a message to a wide audience without the annoying mediation of an editor or the complications of distributing a physical product. Just as 7″ records, once the currency of underground music, have been displaced by mp3s, zines and “little magazines” are giving way to blogs. American newspapers, in competition with both TV and the internet, increasingly find themselves in economic trouble. Writers of every stripe scramble to praise Amazon’s new e-book reader, the Kindle. Clearly, a new type of literacy based on interfacing with screen media, will certainly be a necessary skill for those seeking “professional” or “white collar” jobs in the West, in the now, and in the future (Greg Ulmer, one of my former professors at the University of Florida has dubbed this skill “electracy“). I will grant Tom Orrowland this much. But his line of logic is specifically teleological, presuming a technologically progressive future, a future shared by everyone. What are the limits of this kind of tomorrowland? Does its horizon extend indefinitely into a promised land, where everyone–that is to say, all members of all cultures, of any imposed tier or hierarchy–share access to this future? Is it not possible to imagine a future of social and technological collapse, where hand-cranked presses must serve where pixels have failed? Or, to be less dramatically eschatological–and to return to Bobby’s original vegetation metaphor –are not handbills and fliers and pamphlets the vital stuff of grassroots movements? To be sure, the internet exists as a profoundly important coeval to the print medium, but is access and exposure to such movements to be only available to those with screen media?Is it so inconceivable people without access to machines could exist fifty or a hundred or two hundred years from now? A thousand? Is electracy in fact an evolutionary threat to literacy? Will hypertext cannibalize pressed vegetation?

Maybe I react this way because I truly love books–not just their contents, but the physical objects themselves, and the thought of a future without books is ugly to me. I love my local independent book store, and I visit it at least twice a month. I love the dizzying smell of a library, the sweet slow-rot of millions of pages. I also have a fondness for several independent presses out there today, publishers who understand that their audiences are genuine bibliophiles. Earlier this month, I gave props to Ursula LeGuin for her insightful recent essay “Staying Awake” in Harper’s. She wrote, and I quoted, and here requote:

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you are fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

I couldn’t agree more. Her argument is both simple and profound. To underscore its simplicity, would you be willing to take your laptop or Kindle into the bath with you? How about a sandy beach? Could you imagine poring over a digital version of your favorite Eric Carle book with your young child? What about all the brilliant annotations and ephemeral marginalia doodlers such as myself impose on the text? Again, I’m not presuming that there won’t be water-resistant, beach-friendly, child-friendly, doodler-savvy media interfaces in the future. I can conceive of such a thing. Only I’m dubious. With any number of futuristic fibers available, people still wear organic materials like cotton and leather. We still frame our homes with wood. Many of us prefer to eat real food instead of the edible food-like substances that abound in grocery stores and convenience marts. In short, I think that humans have an affinity and comfort with “naturalistic” products, and I’m not sure if an e-book reader or computer screen will ever be able to replicate the feeling of curling up the couch with a well-loved book stolen from a friend.

Maybe I’m just a Luddite (for the record, I still think my Sony Walkman sounds ten times better than my portable mp3 player). Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, maybe even in just a few short months. Who knows? But I’d rather be cranky and old-fashioned than accept a future without books.

Gaming Literacy

According to this NPR report, the MacArthur Foundation is providing a $1.1 million grant to create a new middle/high school in New York with a curriculum based on video game design. The idea here is that video game design promotes a new type of literacy vital for America’s success in the rapidly growing global economy. The report stresses a shift from older models of literacy, which focus on content memorization, to the pressing need to emphasize literacy models that engage the dynamic systems inherent in newer media.

I think that this is a fantastic idea. Some may find it a nonsensical or even radical shift in education, but we have to try something new. The educational system in this country is based on a model that hasn’t really changed since the industrial revolution. Although numerous sources rank America as having one of the highest literacy rates in the world, my own anecdotal evidence collected as a high school English teacher leads me to believe that this country is in the midst of a literacy crisis that is sure to have a major impact in the country’s ability to compete with countries like India and China.

The risks here are very, very real. Literacy is not just a matter of being able to read stop signs or popular novels or wikipedia pages–literacy is what informs the content of our cultural, social, and political discourse. And beyond the economic issues presented in our difficulty competing in fields like science and engineering–an issue that the MacArthur Foundation’s grant may help address–the everyday rhetoric in this country has become drastically dumbed-down, polarized, reduced to hackneyed platitudes and snappy sound-bites. Political and cultural discourse now consists of empty catch-phrases and meaningless psychobabble. I mean, it’s like totally gay, know what I’m sayin’?

This clip from Mike Judge’s satire Idiocracy neatly sums up the future of verbal discourse in America: