Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

post-literate society rant...

I think we are gently drifting into a post-literate society, here in America.

People don't know how to read anymore. They know how to "scan". It is similar to reading, but much faster, and much less comprehensive.

Look at it this way:

Students in school learn to pass reading tests, that are timed. They have to quickly acquire the data needed to plug into the multiple-choice field, lest they get held back a grade. Teachers teach towards the tests because, at the end of the day, therein lies their paycheck and school funding.

Employees are always urged to think and speak in quick, sharp bullet-points. Get to the point! The CEO is busy! The manager doesn't have time! Hurry! Hurry! No illumination! No elucidation! The meeting is only ten minutes long!

After a long day at work crafting bullet-points, reading bullet-points, and surroudning oneself with bullet-points, the average employee does not wish to think very hard with their entertainment choices.

Oddly enough, they zone out to things like "The Sopranoes" or "Rome" or "Seinfeld" or "Family Guy" which are just as dense, symbolic, metaphoric, and epically artistic as any written tome. Basically, the only difference is using a visual language instead of a written language.

The urge to fiction is fed in a different form, these days.

In books, what actually sells well? Fleshed out outlines, with happy endings. YA books that are designed for readers with no attention span. Crime thriller soap operas designed for readers who want to be shocked and wowed and spoonfed legal thriller action, not to dazzling, insightful prose.

People don't read websites. They scan them, scrolling down the page.

In the age of the internet, we don't really read anymore. We scan the page. We scan the newspaper. We scan books, too. The books you can scan are the ones that sell better than the rest, mostly.

Our culture just don't read anymore, really. We live in a post-literate society. The few, the proud, the readers hang on as best we can, but we are a shrinking minority of the population. Most people just don't spare the time, or choose to ingest their art in theatrical TV drama.

I think, as well, that this is related to the explosion of people who want to be writers. Our culture, that doesn't read anymore, does not understand, in general, the intellectual difference between "scanning" and "reading". Anyone can think to themselves that they can create a scannable document that passes for a story. With our culture what it is, that means many will try their hand and strive to make it as a scribller of fictions.

Our culture is one that values hard-work, "busy"-ness, and a blue collar ethic that teaches anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. Thus, anyone can - by our cultural code - work hard enough and get out enough queries and roll up those sleeves to create the prose that sells.

Yet, not everyone can be a concert pianist. Everyone can learn to play the piano - just as everyone can learn grammar and spelling and the basics of story-telling. However, the natural talents and skills that lead to a concert pianist require a cosmic accident of DNA, cultural gifts, and holy gifts. Not everyone can be a writer.

Sorry, them's the breaks. Frankly, why would you want to be one? We live in a post-literate society. Go learn how to be a director or producer or something. Replace NaNoWriMo with "National Movie Making Month".

They pay much better. Promise.

This rant courtesy of the sad knowledge that there are no independent bookstores within 200 miles of my location, including multiple major urban centers like Fort Worth, Dallas, Weatherford and Waco. That, and Greg Frost's little essay about the Borders fiasco regarding "Lord Tophet" and the Nobel Committee's rant combined together in my head.

Got me thinking about what it means to be a writer in this country.

Anyway, just another reason to move to a nation that values reading books. For instance, I hear in the Netherlands that the government actually gives away one book for a month every year, to promote literature in the Dutch language.


AndyHat said...

If you didn't see it back in July, this NYT article addresses the subject of literacy in the Internet age at great length.

Lola said...

This encourages something I was thinking about blogging about. Something we talked about in my english class today hit me hard and kinda changed the way I think about just giving up on America and moving to another country.
But I agree it would be nice. I don't think people today appreciate literature any less than they did in other ages. *shrug* There are ignorant people in every period likewise there are appreciative and literate people in every age who pass on the tradition.

What I want to know right now though is how I can get one of those free books through LibraryThing. I still haven't won that lottery. (If it even is objective at all. I have a feeling its not.)
Damn I ramble too much.

J m mcdermott said...

Thanks for the link, AndyHat! I'll check it out when I have more than five minutes!

Lola, I have a much better system. I joined SFWA and volunteered for the novels jury. Checking my mail has never been more awesome.

Sparrowhawk said...

I agree with a lot of the sentiments in this rant. While I do think there are still plenty of people who genuinely enjoy reading for the right reasons and will continue to carry on the tradition, I do think that in general the internet and the whole "information age" thing have given everyone ADD.

I think it comes from the ability (sometimes the requirement) to multitask. The ability to have so many tabs open in your browser...or to be constantly text-messaging your friends or surfing the web on your iphone--I think maybe it leads to people thinking they have to "get as much done" as they can in a short amount of time.

Kind of makes you forget what it's like to just sit down in a big chair with a book and become completely lost in just reading for an hour or two.

Lola said...

It also has to do with the whole business of people saying that we're losing the language. It's just changing. To play devil's advocate you could say that MORE people read than before what with the spread of the internet.

But it makes me sad at conventions when people talk about electronic books. There's something amazing about smelling a really old book. Reading a screen is SO less satisfying than having the real thing in your hand.

Lola said...

Oh and that's a good idea Joe but I can't join SFWA yet. You have to have sold something to a qualifying market. I haven't sold anything yet. But I will!

J m mcdermott said...

Someday, I hope our culture will understand the value of laziness.

Truly, culture is not a product of multi-tasking, hard-working 12-hour-shift-pulling monkeys.

Culture, true culture, happens in the leisure hours. High culture comes from having time to explore what intersts you.

I worry when I see what happens to good friends who went off to B-School or law school and became something somewhat less than human: a corporate cog.

They don't read much, either.

I will rebel on Monday. I will do nothing but lay about the house, reading poetry and drinking wine.

Anyone in Benbrook, TX care to joing me?

Lola said...

That sounds nice. I would join you but I'm in Houston. Oh and I have a paper due on Tuesday.

Ignorance Isn't So Blissful;
in Sophocles' Oedipus the King