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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Penelope Lively Says We're "Bloodless Nerds" (or An Old Hypocrite Speaks)

If you haven't heard, Booker Prize winner Penelop Lively, age 78, believes people who read books in electronic form are "bloodless nerds."  The article continues with the following:
She said that Kindles and other devices to which you can download novels are no substitute for real books and no self-respecting bibliophile should want one. 
“I have an iPad but I wouldn’t dream of reading a book on it,” she told the Telegraph Ways With Words Festival.
She makes a number of other typical arguments (how kids don't read like they used to and so on), but I think the above is really the crux of the matter.  Here is a person who has an iPad, which we can assume she uses to read things like online newspapers and magazines, blogs, and other forms of content, which at one point were provided to the public in print format.  This same person thinks reading ebooks is bad news...

So excuse me, Ms. Lively, if I treat your holier-than-thou assault on those of us who use eReaders with contempt.  The fact that you benefit from the very shifts in reading formats you deride for the book form is laughably ironic and hypocritical.  You can't say "I use an iPad" in the same breath as "reading electronic books is for bloodless nerds."  Reading is not exclusive to the book, and the shift in reading habits has been going on for decades.  For whatever reason, we're more concerned about the death of the "book" than we are about the death of the print newspaper or the print magazine or whatever other prints have been subverted by online "printing" practices.

Hell, you might as well bitch about all those stupid blogs out there and how in the old days you only got heard by your friends or if your local newspaper printed your letter to the editor.  Those were such good days when you didn't have much of a say in the way things ran beyond your vote.  Screw Tunisia and Egypt and all that social networking and online newspaper-ing and what not...

For the record, I quite like the "book" as we understand it in print form.  I still buy lots of books.  But I don't disparage people who have become readers via eReaders or converted to electronic reading.  It serves a social function as much as an economic and literary one.  In a strange way, that timeless phrase ("don't just a book by its cover") has a double meaning now.  Nothing wrong with that in my book...

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  1. The most mind-boggling part of statements/stances like this is that "reading" is equated with long-form books, and nothing else, which is absurd and frankly immature - just because it's the author's main, personal format, it's therefore the format that defines the verb "read". That's beyond childish, and dismissive of, oh, life, culture, society, and, you know, the whole rest of the world.

    I would say that her general statement that "kids don't read as much as they used to" IS the crux of her point, actually. Reading is the conscious processing of words/text, followed by analyses and finally synthesis when we speak or write ourselves. Kids today unquestionably read and interact with more words/text every single day than any other generation before them. Think about how often we wrote or read letters in past generations; they were special occasions for most people. Now, with email, texting, social networking, 24/7 news media, ebooks, and interactive but text-based apps, kids are reading and writing non-stop, so much so that new variations on the language have been created for the new venues (which, yes, they often inappropriately try to squeeze into older venues, but that doesn't change the fact that the new language/grammar is proper in its own context). Hell, language itself is changing quicker than ever before, with new words, terms, phrases, ideas, and whatnot, all to keep up with how much the new generations read, write, analyze, synthesize and repeat. Often, long form books can't keep up with the speed, though long-form books are still special, and important, because some ideas must have that kind of considered and detailed approach. That said, the new short-form reading and writing (and micro-form) are incredible examples of how sharp the new generations are, how quickly they can absorb new information, READ it, comprehend it (if faultily, but that was true of long-form print books, too) and advance.

    The idea that new generations are reading LESS is completely unsupportable, by any stretch of the imagination. But nay-sayers of the technological assimilation of old-form reading formats firmly believe that kids are somehow less intelligent by any measurable standard, which is the crux of their entire argument against supposedly intellectually demeaning advancement in technology. When the truth is: those kids can read and write circles around people like Lively, long-form or short-form.

  2. Overall, I completely agree with you, though I think you need to nuance your argument some (and I have one contention).

    Kids *are* reading more these days, but they are reading more in different formats, which doesn't make Lively incorrect. She argued that kids aren't reading books all that much anymore, which is sort of true (the population of readers has likely gone up lately, but overall hasn't gone down considerably in the last 20 years; it's the percentages that have dropped). You're right about the fact that we read more now than we ever did, and also right to point out that Lively is probably arguing from a very narrow view of what makes reading "reading."

    The only thing I take issue with is your assessment that kids these days can read circles around Lively. Within particular social niches? Absolutely. Lively probably doesn't fully comprehend textspeak and its variations, but English is and will likely remain the standard by which society functions, since textspeak is an inherently limited linguistic form.

    Having said that, I think it's important to note what I've learned from personal experience in teaching freshman comp at a flagship university: while I won't argue that cell phones and chatrooms are responsible for what I've seen, I will say that entire generations these days are not prepared to use the language they speak every day. They're not trained in the way Lively was (by that I mean what they had to learn, not the methods by which learning took place). The result is, as I've seen, a student body who has issues constructing coherent sentences, coherent thoughts, comprehending fairly simple readings, and so on. These students may work their asses off to get good grades and improve, but they come into my class with severe disadvantages (and these are not remedial courses, but introductory college-level composition courses). Based on what I'm seeing coming out of high school, I really can't agree with you about their mastery of language.

    Whether this is a reflection of their intelligence depends on how you define it. I would say "no," but only because the system in which most children learn writing and reading in the U.S. is broken to the point that drastic change has to happen or future generations will be left in the dust by nations that have mastered education...

  3. I agree that only certain reading skills are organically learned via the multitasking-heavy world of constant digital interaction. And I think this is precisely where education comes in - school is and will likely always be the environment that forces us to learn beyond our natural impulses. Reading books, writing essays, being able to communicate in clear and complex ways are things kids still need to be schooled in (literally).

    But that said, I think the ways in which new generations are learning outside of school are just as impressive, and complex, in their own way, which is why those like Lively, who didn't learn them, can't do them, and can't even speak coherently on them. She speak about them in coherent sentences, but she never talks about the actual issues, because she doesn't, ultimately, understand them, or care to be bothered understanding them, much like kids don't want to be bothered with book lernin'.

    And she did actually just say kids read less: "Are they reading less today? I have a nasty feeling they are." The context is about books, but the statement is still thoughtlessly sweeping.