We are readers. We read fiction and non-fiction, books and magazines. We read for fun as well as for knowledge. We like and appreciate elegant and succinct prose, though when we have to, we can also slog through dry, dull professional literature in search of buried kernels of usable knowledge. We can sit for hours, alone with a book, because we're not alone, really; we're listening to an author's mind at work, and mentally talking back.
Reading discursive prose comes so easily for us that we don't realize that it is, in fact, an acquired skill, one that requires concentration, curiosity, a pretty good vocabulary, and the willingness to follow the author's logic. Which means we're totally at a loss dealing with the current generation of students who have mostly not acquired that skill.
One of the reasons I finally tired of life in an academic library was that when I would show students interesting books that would fulfill their assignments, too often their only question was, "what's the shortest one?" They not only didn't want to read non-fiction, they didn't know how to read it, at least not well. They had never been trained in the art of sitting still for hours at a time following someone's words and train of thought.
The last two generations have grown up in an environment that virtually trains them in attention-deficit disorder. Raised in the age of images and jump cuts, from Sesame Street to MTV, they have grasshopper minds, quick and impatient. Now they've moved on to the internet, where they read a paragraph or two and then hyperlink to the next new thing. [When I wrote a column for Fox News Online, I was told that if I wrote more than 700 words, no matter how good, the readers would click away.] Their manner of thinking is not the sequential, logical thought fostered by reading; instead they think by connectivity, by assembling collages of meaning, putting together a piece of an idea here, a number there.
That isn't to say that they're not thinking, or even that their way of thinking is inferior to ours. Indeed, that kind of connectivity can generate creative leaps that would be difficult for more linear thinkers.
It does mean, however, that reading is an unpleasant chore for them. They are more fluent in images than words, more fluent in the language conventions of conversation and online chat than those of standard written English. And since conversation uses a far more limited vocabulary than written prose does, their lack of vocabulary makes nonfiction even more difficult for them -- any time you have to stop and look something up, you lose continuity.
I am not one of those who thinks books will disappear because of the internet. As long as there are writers like Stephen King and Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling, books will continue to be devoured by eager readers, because the power of storytelling will propel readers through the densest thickets of prose.
But I do think some kinds of books are endangered. Scholarly tomes written in inpenetrable academic jargon are probably the least likely to survive, since even we, the skilled readers who CAN decipher them, WON'T if we can possibly avoid the task. This kind of book will die unless scholars learn to speak English.
Frankly, I don't think that would be much of a loss. But where is the audience going to come from in the future for historians like Stephen Ambrose, educational philosophers like Howard Gardner, media critics like Neil Postman, thoughtful students of American culture like Robert Putnam, outraged critics and polemicists on the right or left like John Leo or Barbara Ehrenreich?
The truly endangered species, I fear, are books that help to shape the national dialogue, and books that explain us to each other, like Bowling Alone, Laurie Garret's newly relevant The Coming Plague, Sherwin Nuland's How We Die, Randy Shilts's book on gays in the military, Conduct Unbecoming, Jane M. Healy's Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect our Children's Minds, for Better and Worse, Ellis Cose's explanation of why middle-class blacks are angry, The Rage of a Privileged Class.
I think we, both as librarians and readers, have an obligation to work with teachers to try to keep the audience for such books alive. I'm not sure how we do that, but surely part of it is letting teachers and students know about well-written, accessible books and articles on topics that have some inherent interest -- gender relations, for instance, or current social issues, or sports, or explanations of terrorism. We could do what a number of cities and campuses are doing: choose a book for everybody to read, and offer discussion groups and web sites and meetings for talking about it. I would suggest using important nonfiction books for such projects.
Above all, students need practice in order to read such books; the act of reading, repeated often enough, creates the fluency, vocabulary, and concentration that makes reading progressively easier. The more good reasons we can give students to read good discursive prose, the more we can help to keep it alive.
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Computers do an odd thing with knowledge. Ask a question, and, in a blink, they immediately highlight the precise answer -- the citation, the definition. You're handed the answer with no context.
I've learned so much in the process of looking up something else -- adjacent pages in a dictionary, sidetracks in books. With the computer, context becomes an avoidable waste of time. And that means far greater loss than we first imagine.
John Lienhard. "The Metaphor of the Book." Address to the Texas Library Association Annual Conference, April, 1996 (http://www.uh.edu/engines/tlatalk.htm
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