Daily Archives: October 9, 2008

post-literate society rant…

I think we are gently drifting into a post-literate society, here in America.

People don’t know how to read anymore. They know how to “scan”. It is similar to reading, but much faster, and much less comprehensive.

Look at it this way:

Students in school learn to pass reading tests, that are timed. They have to quickly acquire the data needed to plug into the multiple-choice field, lest they get held back a grade. Teachers teach towards the tests because, at the end of the day, therein lies their paycheck and school funding.

Employees are always urged to think and speak in quick, sharp bullet-points. Get to the point! The CEO is busy! The manager doesn’t have time! Hurry! Hurry! No illumination! No elucidation! The meeting is only ten minutes long!

After a long day at work crafting bullet-points, reading bullet-points, and surroudning oneself with bullet-points, the average employee does not wish to think very hard with their entertainment choices.

Oddly enough, they zone out to things like “The Sopranoes” or “Rome” or “Seinfeld” or “Family Guy” which are just as dense, symbolic, metaphoric, and epically artistic as any written tome. Basically, the only difference is using a visual language instead of a written language.

The urge to fiction is fed in a different form, these days.

In books, what actually sells well? Fleshed out outlines, with happy endings. YA books that are designed for readers with no attention span. Crime thriller soap operas designed for readers who want to be shocked and wowed and spoonfed legal thriller action, not to dazzling, insightful prose.

People don’t read websites. They scan them, scrolling down the page.

In the age of the internet, we don’t really read anymore. We scan the page. We scan the newspaper. We scan books, too. The books you can scan are the ones that sell better than the rest, mostly.

Our culture just don’t read anymore, really. We live in a post-literate society. The few, the proud, the readers hang on as best we can, but we are a shrinking minority of the population. Most people just don’t spare the time, or choose to ingest their art in theatrical TV drama.

I think, as well, that this is related to the explosion of people who want to be writers. Our culture, that doesn’t read anymore, does not understand, in general, the intellectual difference between “scanning” and “reading”. Anyone can think to themselves that they can create a scannable document that passes for a story. With our culture what it is, that means many will try their hand and strive to make it as a scribller of fictions.

Our culture is one that values hard-work, “busy”-ness, and a blue collar ethic that teaches anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. Thus, anyone can – by our cultural code – work hard enough and get out enough queries and roll up those sleeves to create the prose that sells.

Yet, not everyone can be a concert pianist. Everyone can learn to play the piano – just as everyone can learn grammar and spelling and the basics of story-telling. However, the natural talents and skills that lead to a concert pianist require a cosmic accident of DNA, cultural gifts, and holy gifts. Not everyone can be a writer.

Sorry, them’s the breaks. Frankly, why would you want to be one? We live in a post-literate society. Go learn how to be a director or producer or something. Replace NaNoWriMo with “National Movie Making Month”.

They pay much better. Promise.

This rant courtesy of the sad knowledge that there are no independent bookstores within 200 miles of my location, including multiple major urban centers like Fort Worth, Dallas, Weatherford and Waco. That, and Greg Frost’s little essay about the Borders fiasco regarding “Lord Tophet” and the Nobel Committee’s rant combined together in my head.

Got me thinking about what it means to be a writer in this country.

Anyway, just another reason to move to a nation that values reading books. For instance, I hear in the Netherlands that the government actually gives away one book for a month every year, to promote literature in the Dutch language.


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