Thursday, February 28, 2008

Unique to Books: Cogency and Privacy

The argument for us glass-half-full types is that literacy isn't tanking at all. No, these days stories are morphing away from the printed page and emerging from other vessels like screens, or entering our souls through the ear rather than the eye. And it's not just teens -- I do more and more of my reading online and my consumption of podcasts is rising exponentially. We're reading, I scoff at the doomsayers, just differently, that's all.

But then I left my computer for ten days and discovered the truth of Howard Gardner's two sad postscripts in an otherwise upbeat take on literacy:
Two aspects of the traditional book may be in jeopardy, however. One is the author's capacity to lay out a complex argument, which requires the reader to study and reread, following a circuitous course of reasoning. The Web's speedy browsing may make it difficult for digital natives to master Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" (not that it was ever easy).

The other is the book's special genius for allowing readers to enter a private world for hours or even days at a time. Nowadays young people seem to have a compulsion to stay in touch with one another all the time; one of the dividends of book reading may fade away.
The latter gift of extended privacy, which I think comes more from fiction while the gift of cogency from non-fiction, is exactly what I enjoyed during my recent reading extravaganza -- each novel was a journey to another place and time, vacations within a vacation, solitude my soul relished even while I was enjoying time with family.

So now I'm wondering how my digitally native sons are losing out. Will their click-here-and-there minds lose the capacity to understand long, complex arguments? Will their facebooked souls know what to do with extended solitude? Or in the future will those particular skills become as anachronistic as classical rhetoric or the art of courtly love?


orb28 said...

What a thought-provoking post! I think I'm going to link to it from the orb28 blog and see if we can get some discussion on the topic going there -- from wired girls who are also, by and large, avid readers.

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