I'm one of the few human beings left on the planet under the age of eighty-five who still gets up every morning and cracks an actual newspaper. For many who still even bother to read the morning news, it's straight to the Kindle, iPhone, Reader, or laptop.
I get a physical rush from the tactile feeling of a virginal newspaper in my hands, the muted, grainy, sickly gray hue of the paper stock folded horizontally at its center, and the eighth-night-of-Chanukah-like anticipation of wondering what the front page headlines will be as the brooding, cynical bastard within me prematurely simmers over the fact that the most important story of the day will undoubtedly be buried somewhere around page A-27.
To me, the newspaper is a crack-of-dawn companion, a distinguished mentor, and a loyal partner in commiseration. As I'm not a morning person, I rely on it to shake me from my somnambulant stupor with its heaping slabs of social injustice, worldly carnage, and hyperbolic, counterintuitive, and insufferably didactic op-eds. Oh, and did I mention the horoscopes (Me? I'm a Leo!)
Although I do make an occasional foray into the world of online news, it's never the same. I don't have a Kindle yet and possibly never will ($299.00), so I'm surely missing out on all that goodness. And, as much as that cute, trim, unassuming - yet agonizingly smug - hipster on the Mac commercials might want me to feel otherwise, my laptop monitor screen is just an austere face glaring up at me, awaiting my next command. Rather than passive-aggressively admonishing my ambivalence, a la HAL, it silently hectors me with precisely the same harrowing news stories that my cuddly newspaper seemingly reveals to me with kid gloves.
Okay, so maybe that last part's all in my head.
Still, in a strange way, there's just something so comforting about physically holding that newspaper and all its ominous headlines in my hands - an illusory sense of empowerment, perhaps - as though I'm not a victim of destiny but rather an active participant? Maybe. Because I sort of feel like, if I can hold it in my hands while reading it, everything will probably turn out all right. Did I fail to mention that I'm a control freak?
But, on an apparently slow news day (aside from a hell cauldron brewing in Afghanistan, an impending health care reform bill that's sure to be either DOA or utterly ineffectual, and a defiant, dangerous, and increasingly volatile Iran dithering about a possible stockpile of weapons-grade uranium), my usual morning raft of sanity offers me this little beauty from its front page:
In the age of the iPhone, Kindle and YouTube, the notion of the book is becoming increasingly elastic as publishers mash together text, video and Web features in a scramble to keep readers interested in an archaic form of entertainment.
Because reading words is, you know, like hard and stuff. Sometimes I feel that this country would make so much more sense to me if I were a 15-year-old girl.
Incidentally, at what point will watching video become too taxing on our intellect? Will then every video-capable device come with a pygmy wizard-gnome, there to sagely explain us through the mental rigors of guys getting whacked in the nuts with sledgehammers or two coeds making out in their dorm room? Once again, from the same Times piece:
On Thursday, for instance, Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, is working with a multimedia partner to release four "vooks," which intersperse videos throughout electronic text that can be read - and viewed - online or an iPhone or iPod touch.
I can't wait to see how they "intersperse" video footage of Jake's impotence-induced demise due to his unrequited love for a woman he can never physically attain in The Sun Also Rises. No worries, though: I'm sure it'll be well-acted and tastefully done, as only vooks can do.
Jake: I see you were out with Cohn again.
Brett: Yeah. So?
Jake: No, I was just...
Brett: Look, I need me a REAL man. Someone who can satisfy ALL THIS!
Judging from the breathless tone of the rest of the article, The Times is clearly taking an if-you- can't-beat -em-join -em tack on this new abomination - uh, I mean synergy - because they, along with most other newspaper publications and publishing houses, are doing everything in their power just to remain solvent and relevant in an age in which information is perpetually condensed, compressed, and then power-vomited into the public sphere at light speed.
In other words, they're happy just to be up and running; any strategy at this point that will enable them to remain in business will be eagerly employed, whether it's incorporating vooks, streaming video, or mimes acting out the latest developments in health care reform.
But what's most gallingly unforgivable for me is that The Times article frames innovations such as the video-text/novel hybrid as a revolutionary movement in literature, rather than what it is more likely to be: the continued demise of written language and overall literacy. Disagree? According to The USA Today, approximately 32 million American adults are not skilled enough to read anything beyond a children's book, though on the bright side, it also means they're still fully capable of reading The USA Today. Buh-dump-bump!
At the very least, atrocities like "vooks" are the canary in the coal mine in the slow, lumbering slide into an anti-intellectual abyss (Though if you were to counter that the re-election of George W. Bush was, in fact, the seminal moment of our burgeoning idiocracy, I would have no rebuttal.)
The following is an excerpt from Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, a book that I find exceedingly appropriate for this very occasion:
The debasement of the nation's speech is evident in virtually everything broadcast and podcast on radio, television, and the internet. In this true, all-encompassing public square, homogenized language and homogenized thought reinforce each other in circular fashion. As George Orwell noted in 1946, "A man may take a drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks." It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
(Not that I'm one to point fingers, but, extrapolating from these statistics, more American adults have watched NASCAR on a regular basis over the past year than have have read a book.)
Even more disappointing is Maryanne Wolf's apparent complicity in this movement. A few years back, Wolf penned Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, a staid but exceptionally informative reader about the ways in which the human brain adapts to, and hopefully masters, the mentally arduous task of reading. In The Times' article, she states:
There is no question that these new media are going to be superb at engaging and interesting the reader.
But in her book, Wolf emphasizes the systematic nature of becoming a proficient reader, that it is often a slow, cumbersome process that is fully actualized through fits and starts - it's difficulty deriving from the fact that the act of reading is not a skill that humans innately possess. From Proust and the Squid:
Learning to read is an almost miraculous story filled with many developmental processes that come together to give the child entry into the teeming underlife of a word usable by the child. Socrates and the ancient Indian scholars feared that reading words, rather than hearing and speaking them, would prevent our ability to know their many layers of meaning, sound, function, and possibility. In fact, early reading exposes - during the moment of acquisition - how many of the multiple, older structures contribute to each layer as they come together to form the brain's new circuitry for reading.
The more a child is exposed to written words, the greater his or her implicit and explicit understanding of all language.
So how does Wolf reconcile her exhaustive research into the reading process with her current optimism for the video-text hybrid model? To be fair, she adds:
Can you any longer read Henry James or George Eliot? Do you have the patience?
Intriguing question. Personally, I have plenty of patience for George Eliot. He's that NASCAR driver, right?