The New York Times’s “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” would have lost me from the start — I try not to read anything in with LOL-speak in the title — were it not for my morbid curiosity about how badly Print Media fucked up the debate about the internet and literacy this time.
I was rewarded: it’s jam-packed with misframed information, cryptic statistics and quotes from dinosaurs who still think the printing press is new-fangled.
My real issue isn’t the reactionary claims to the superiority of the printed word, it’s the lumping together of all internet activities as a waste of time.
Case in point:
“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”
Pine for the days of gilded-edge hardcovers all you want, but try to tell me that reading off a computer screen isn’t as good as reading a printed novel and I will shove my Amazon Kindle so far up your ass you’ll forget that it’s a pound lighter and an inch thinner than your bestselling mass-market paperback.
I’ve learned a hell of a lot more from Wikipedia than I learned from reading the canon of Russian literature. I’ve also learned a lot from textbooks, which tend to be terrible, so there goes your “great books” argument, unless you’re just trying to make a point about building character and walking ten miles to school in the snow uphill both ways.
Fine, old-timer. We get it. Respect thine elders. But guess what? We’ve got fucking Segways now, motherfucker. We’ve got seven-zone climate control and Gore-Tex boots and Google and we don’t need no motherfucking David Copperfield to learn us about character. We’ve got Harry Potter movies and Spiderman III for that.
Reading is reading, and reading is good. You can’t blame the method of access to reading for the decline in literacy, and you certainly can’t complain about the massive quantity of periodicals, articles and information that comes at the end of an Ethernet wire. Kids who read and write online are no worse off than kids who read and write on paper, and kids who play video games and watch porn would have been either chasing each other with sticks or sniffing glue back in the fifties.
I’d love to believe that this piece was written by an septuagenarian like David McCullough, but Motoko Rich, the author and Books beat reporter, is barely forty if she graduated Yale in ’91. She can’t possibly believe the ridiculous self-protective alarmism she’s spouting off in here.
The Times make it sound like kids who go online will never learn to read properly, and the only path to success is novels, novels, novels! Maybe this is just writers trying to protect their own jobs, but it’s kinda hypocritical coming from an organization whose online readership is fourteen times its print circulation.
And please, don’t try to convince me that reading books is paving the way to the future:
Reading skills are also valued by employers. A 2006 survey by the Conference Board, which conducts research for business leaders, found that nearly 90 percent of employers rated “reading comprehension” as “very important” for workers with bachelor’s degrees. Department of Education statistics also show that those who score higher on reading tests tend to earn higher incomes.
True story: I knew a kid who was graduating summa cum laud from an Ivy League university with a degree in English. I asked him, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” He told me: “The same thing everyone with an English degree from an Ivy League school does: starve.”
Why, yes! Ninety percent of jobs DO require you to be able to read. But beyond that, modern employers definitely value your ability to research quickly and efficiently online above a passion for long nights spent in the library. Oh, and if you want a higher income? Study engineering.