The fall in regard for this experience has been a painless and gradual one but I begin to see an end to it -- a leveling, a grand experiment in mediocrity. I see a future where everyone in the public at large can read at a seventh grade level (and I grant you, that would be a giant leap forward for some) but it is a purely utilitarian practice of absorbing memoranda or instructions for the use of some electronic device with maybe some comic books thrown in, but where anything approaching real literature is relegated to the eggheads on college campuses or quirky Luddite freaks who dig the smell of ink on paper.
Even if you think of yourself as particularly literate or at least respectful of the written word, your opinion and your skills have already been affected negatively by the time in which you have lived. Youre almost certainly like me, a comparative illiterate whose entire education occurred in the last century. The later in our era your education was delivered, the more questionable it was. Almost from the beginning, the 20th century and its attendant technology have been a devastating, if somewhat languorous attack on literacy.
Picture yourself as a high school student at the turn of that century. Youre tired from long hours of studying Thackeray and Dickens and the third person subjunctive. You want excitement but you just finished some very physically demanding chores and dont have the energy to play any of the new athletic pastimes, like basketball or golf. What do you do in those leisure moments?
Well, you put the Reed-Kellogg grammar book back on the shelf between the untranslated Aeneid and the excerpted speeches of Cato and Pliny the Elder and you pick up (drum roll, please)É a book. Fiction. Probably Mark Twain or Robert Louis Stevenson. You do that because of your growing reverence for the intricacies of the English Language and the subtle beauty of its written word. Also because there is absolutely nothing else -- of a sedentary nature - to do in this whole wide turn-of-the-century world.
Just a few years later you might instead have chosen to fiddle with the crystal radio set your uncle gave you for Christmas and try to tune in some scratchy ragtime music or a speech by President Taft. A decade beyond that the tiny crystal would have become a Philco console that looked for all the world like a four foot tall cathedral. But as the darkness gathers on this October evening you huddle next to the fire and try to save coal oil by turning your lamp downÉas you read.
If you are a geezer like myself, you were born almost coincident with commercial television which begat cable, which begat satellite, all of which converged into computers and I-Pods and the internet and cell phones with cameras and Palm Pilots with cell phones and remote controls for all of them. I swear! A remote control for a portable CD player that weighs less than a ham sandwich! How lazy is that!
Reading was always a window for folks like me to places we were destined never to see and adventures we would never really have -- except in our imaginations. But over time the flickering window of the cathode ray tube has intruded deeper and deeper into that territory. If you slide the last few yards down that slippery slope you will begin to play some of the stunning new breed of video games and then you will know it is over. The computer has so subsumed us in this incarnation that it is becoming a simulation of ourselves -- our better, or at least more buff and more capable selves - and if we allow it, we are reduced to a macabre mix of electronic simulacra and fleshy voyeurs in our own lives.
Some, a minority of them to be sure but still an appalling number, have surrendered their sense of well-being and personal achievement to events as ephemeral as the momentary glow of a matrix of colorful phosphor and a ribcage thrumming explosion in 5.1 surround sound. If you think I exaggerate this effect; if you think this is just an eccentric little fad and are not a little frightened by this, hang around the office water cooler until you hear a conversation between two twenty-x year old gamers.
They did not have the advantage I had of being born in the pre-Dumont Broadcasting era when sometimes you could turn on your grainy little twelve inch screen and get a screenshot of an Indian with crosshairs and lines and circles - or nothing at all. Dont get me wrong when I say this, because I love reading and truly revere this greatest of all languages. But I was just a kid not so different from the kids today and if I had had a choice between reading the fantasies of Jules Verne or watching -- no, experiencing an extremely realistic electronic simulation of what my life would be like as an NBA superstar or the pilot of a jet fighter, which would I have chosen? As Bart Simpson would say -- Duh!
Technology apologists -- and they are many -- will make the point that all these advances are still based in literature. Even the video games have scripts and dialogue and movies are just drama freed from the restrictions of the traditional proscenium, right? Sure. There are obvious exceptions but for the MTV trained film editor, a four second shot equates to a lingering visual caress of contemplative depth and lighting is determined by how much TNT was used in the scene. Dialogue and story, the writing -- the literature of the medium -- is the victim, and so are we. Thats why we need to Miffy the Rabbit to promote a skill which is not only essential to our modern lives, but a complete and utter joy when subject matter and interest are joined in the mind of an avid reader, if there are any of you left out there.
So go home tonight and read something longer than an essay by a whiny curmudgeon or a bunch of pre-digested opinions masquerading as news. Dont read the latest blockbuster because you think it will be the topic of conversation next week. Dont read something to study for your next witty rejoinder or to enhance your chances of advancement at work, or even to broaden your mind.
Do it just for the sheer pleasure of it because yours may be the last generation that can understand that. If you are a real reader, you probably have a book or two in mind that are like old friends you revisit from time to time. You know exactly what I mean. If you dont, you just proved my point. Just turn up the volume and have a nicely simulated evening.
(Dan John is a director of computing services for Exel Transportation Services, Inc.)