Reading off an iPad is nothing like reading a book
“Nearly half the population struggles without the literacy skills to meet the most basic demands of everyday life and work. Forty-six per cent of Australians can’t read newspapers, follow a recipe, make sense of timetables, or understand the instructions on a medicine bottle.”
So begins the “why we exist” page of the National Year of Reading 2012 website. This staggering statistic suggests the literacy issue in Australia is so urgent that emoticons could one day become functional rather than fashionable.
A friend recently asked me to translate a cover letter from Italian into English. The Gen Y jobseeker ended the formal letter to a prospective employer with a smiley. I couldn’t translate the smiley and didn’t charge her for it, though I felt guilty charging her at all given she didn’t get the job and the smiley soon became a frowny.
I am not against the evolution of language. The essence of communication is, after all, making oneself understood by whatever means. And the beauty of the smiley is, ironically in this case, the fact it can’t be translated. It’s as universally understood as a Visa card and the two-finger salute, the latter often employed if the former is declined.
The problem is that the applicant’s use of the smiley betrayed the fact she didn’t have the words at her disposal to finish the letter in a lighthearted tone and so she thought the smiley would do the trick. Or perhaps it was just automatic.
She is not illiterate, not Australian, and, if she were, probably wouldn’t fall into that 46 per cent. But she is part of a generation which, more and more, is reading less and less. This is having a negative impact on writing skills, depth of expression and, in this case, employment prospects, at least while her employers belong to Generation X.
Gen Y does have a lot going for it. Its sense of social justice and confidence to challenge the status quo could save the planet and find an alternative to banks. But literacy is being left in its technological wake. Is this a problem? I think it is.
And reading can solve it.
Reading is more than a pastime, it’s a subliminal education. Artistic expression doesn’t always need a conscience and some of the best books I’ve read were escapism. But they and more serious books have the power to entertain while also enriching vocabulary, reinforcing spelling and prompting profound analysis not only of the story’s characters but, in comparison, that of the reader.
It’s a beautiful, reflective process, a two-way street, which, unfortunately, risks becoming a dead end.
One of the happiest and one of the saddest moments in my life both occurred in bookshops. I can’t remember how old I was the first time my parents took me to a bookshop but I was old enough to be overcome by the smell of the paper, the artistry of the covers, the diversity of expression, the adventure within.
A bookshop is a cross between an art gallery and a treasure chest. I can happily spend a whole day in a bookshop: walking the aisles, browsing the blurbs, losing myself while finding out about others.
Reading was my favourite pastime as a child. I was once so absorbed in a Secret Seven mystery that when my mother called me for dinner I told her to shush or she’d wake one of the characters. No film, TV show or video game has ever enthralled me as much as a well-written story.
The sad moment came some 30 years later when I walked into a branch of Angus and Robertson to find staff selling the bookshelves as well as the books. Price tags also adorned the chairs, the counter, the computers… You could even make an offer on the staff room microwave oven.
The slow-death of the printed book is the saddest cultural event of my lifetime. I am a bookworm on the brink of extinction. Each time a bookshop closes another hectare of my natural habitat disappears. When I eventually buy a Kindle I will reluctantly appreciate buying books at the touch of a button and certainly won’t miss the freight costs each time we move. But I will miss the physical company of books, the journey through the pages and the crease on the spine.
Some say the eBook is a direct replacement of the printed book. Others disagree because of the depth of the reading process when you’re reading on a screen. Apparently you can now even read a book on an iPhone. But with so many other bells and whistles vying for your attention, can that really be classed as reading?
Studies suggest that reading online results in superficial assimilation of the material. And Philip Roth claims that to read a book properly you need to devour it in one sitting.
One sitting?! Youngsters are so distracted nowadays that many can’t do one thing at once. I am seeing more and more teenagers walk into lampposts as they try to balance the reality of a street with the urgency of a tweet.
In contrast to that bygone bookshop, you needed an appointment to get served at the nearby phone shop. One customer needed to talk with someone about an app that wasn’t working. His child was playing with the iPhones. “Daddy,” she said, “I want one of those.”
When my daughter is her age I would love to take her to browse in a bookshop. She’s going to need to grow up fast.
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