Monday, February 18, 2008

New Literacy

Since I started this blog on March 8, 2006, I have posted more than 500 times and received more than 900 comments. My champion post, with 206 hits as of this morning (and usually getting at least one or two a week), is Don't Dig Here, in which I looked at the linguistic challenge involved in warning people thousands of years in the future of the hazards posed by nuclear waste storage sites. It seems that this is a topic that's more on people's minds than I thought when I wrote it.

There was a very interesting article in the Washington Post's Outlook section yesterday that relates to the ideas I tried to develop in that post. The article, by Howard Gardner, was titled "The End of Literacy? Don't Stop Reading", and was a fascinating look at the future of reading and writing. He began with the observations that students' reading scores are declining, and surveys indicate that half the adult population of the United States doesn't read a single book in a year, and asked the rhetorical question: what does this mean for the future of a literate American culture?

His conclusion, surprisingly enough, was relatively upbeat. He notes that the technology that made it possible to print books for wide distribution was originally fought by those who wanted to keep knowledge to themselves (particularly in religious circles), and that each new method of mass communication - from the telegraph to the Internet - has had its own critics. In the end, Mr Gardner concludes that the obituaries being written for books and reading are probably premature. There are simple pleasures involved in holding, reading, and pondering a book, just as there are advantages of speed and breadth in digital communication. He also notes that "Fewer people will write notes or letters by hand, but the elegant handwritten note to mark a special occasion will endure."

I bought Agnes a Sony E-Book reader last year, and she likes it for traveling, but is still hooked on the good old printed books that fill every corner of our home. I do most of my "written" communicating by e-mail and word-processed, printed letters...but I still enjoy writing letters by hand, and receiving handwritten letters of ink on paper. After all, if the power goes out or the batteries die, e-mail will be lost, electronic books will go dark; tomorrow's word processing software may not read today's digital documents; but ink on paper will endure, as it has for hundreds of years.

Literacy isn't dead yet. Changing, yes. Underemployed, definitely. But still here.

I feel a little better about current literacy than I did before. Read Mr Garnder's article and see what you think.

Have a good day. More thoughts (on a related topic) tomorrow.



Amanda said...

I do like handwriting my letters (and of course receiving them) but I don't do it often because it takes so much longer to reach the person.

I was thrilled when I received a 'handwritten' but digital note from my friend who used the writing function on his tablet PC.

I find it to be a good compromise of technology and the personal touch but doesn't solve the problem of power failures.

Amanda said...

Btw, I finally have some non-shopping-mall photos of Kuala Lumpur on my blog.

zero_zero_one said...

It always startles me when I meet somebody who says that they don't read for pleasure...

I enjoy receiving and writing handwritten letters. Printed or handwritten media is far from dead, but it's too perishable to last long periods of time ("deep time", millenia upon millenia).

I read somewhere once that a day will come (allegedly sometime in thie century, but I'm not holding my breath) when every piece of writing in the world could be recorded inside the positions of atoms in cube of carbon no bigger than a couple of inches to a side...

...but I wonder if even that would be "readable" in the time beyond that, whether the "file format" would be unreadable to whatever civilization is around then.

Mike said...

I have to agree and disagree. Not only do I have trouble writing in cursive, but I have trouble reading it too depending on the person doing the writing. (i.e. ask wife, what the hell does this say? Can you read this!?) When I "write", I actually print. And I can print faster than I can write. And it's much more legible. Give me good ol' arial 12 point anytime.