Saturday, September 22, 2007

What's So Great About Books, Anyway?

Both this semester and last spring, the topic of technology and/vs. text is a recurring one in Katherine's class. Last spring, she proposed the idea of framing a composition class where the class's primary text would be MySpace. A fist fight nearly broke out between those who were in favor of the idea and those who thought it would be a terrible corruption of everything they held near and dear. The general sentiment was, if it's in a book at least it's worthwhile. MySpace is a free for all filled with junk, how can that be as valuable as a Norton anthology?

On Thursday night we played with Visual iX, a Bedford produced CDRom that takes you through elements of visual literacy as a way of analyzing things like advertisements and photos in the Newspaper. It's all about things like the way color, shading, layout, etc. go together to make a visual argument. Certain people in the class were resistant. "This is all well and good, but students still need to know how to sit down and read pure text."


In these discussions, we keep skipping over the fact that text itself is technology. Granted, it's not cutting-edge since we've had it for a few centuries, but it was created for the same reasons other communication technology was created. The only reason the Sumerians created cuneiform instead of movie cameras was the limits of their technology. Let's face it, the whole point of text was to accurately record events in real life, right? Text is ultimately limiting.

With text we miss things like voice intonation and rhythm, facial expression, and body language. Granted, when we read text, the author can indicate these things, but it's a translation rather than the real thing. Then you look a film and there it is, no translation. So, in respect to mimicing reality, isn't film a superior medium? But, students need to know how to read text!

I admit to playing devil's advocate here. While I love movies and TV, if I absolutely had to pick between film and books, I'd pick text. When you get right down to it, while film comes closest to recreating reality, it's also a passive medium. We sit and watch and everything is presented to us as long as we keep our eyes open. Reading, on the other hand, is active. We have to work to pull the narrative off the page and in a way, we are creating the text ourselves. Besides, books are portable and need no batteries.

Also, an average movie is an hour and a half/two hours. It takes far longer than that to read the average novel. Okay, not if you're one of those freaky speed-reader people, but that's an exception. It takes a few moments to look at a painting, hours to watch a play, minutes to check your e-mail, etc. Comparatively, books are the most labor intensive.

So, is the real reason students "need" to be able to read text simply because reading text requires more discipline and work than other mediums? When it comes to academia, is the biggest reason we value reading because it's hard?


Jenny said...

I'm not really torn here, I'd pick text as my mode of getting info. However, I agree that there are many, many other mediums of recieving and transmitting information. Photographs and visuals sometimes do a hell of a lot more to impact a person than text.

To put a variation on a theme that John once talked about--you can read about what a symptom of a disease looks like, and I was recently doing just this for my book. Research. One of the symptoms was an inverted nipple. Reading those two words did not influence me nearly as much as seeing the actual effect on a patient. It made me much more respectful towards both the people who actually suffer and the character that I was making suffer.

To go on for a little longer...

Text, however, is also very appealing because of its simplicity. Tomorrow, if the power goes out, if there's some tragedy, the elements of text are very easy to duplicate. It seems really hard to kill. If certain social structures failed tomorrow, there would still be pieces of text lying around. If we take the passive path and just watch movies for our stories/ideas and don't have the tools to explicate the information we're presented with (and text would be a big/huge/gigantic part of that), well, I don't think I'd want to see the damage....

But! Right now technology is working. Text is still available. Why would you deny yourself a multitude of experiences just because one of them may be 'better' than the other? Use it all. Expand.

Mishell said...

I think our community, that is, the academic English community, is so reticent to accept other mediums as text is because we are a community that is slow, very slow, to change. This is evidenced by not only what gets put into "the Canon," but by how vehemently people oppose what is being taught, both at university and at secondary schools. (Other disciplines suffer the same problemsm, but I think it's most pronounced in English academia.)
If you throw on top of this that the medium that is trying to be incorporated is one that didn't exist when many of the people who are trying to be persuaded that it is valid, well, now we've got the problem of trying to learn the medium, as well as the text. Let me tell you, it's hard to become computer literate when you graduated before the internet was born. It's even harder when you graduated before the PC was born. Now, I graduate in between these two events. (You still had to know DOS to use a PC.) The technology scared me, and I think that's exactly what this debate comes down to--fear.

Now that computers and information is so readily available, the people who aren't confident in accessing the latter through the former are striking out against the technology. The argument is that anyone can publish on the internet, so how can there be quality when there is no one who dictates quality?

But is it really quality that is dictated? Or is it censorship? There is no censorship on the net, except self-censorship, and that's scarey to people who have been told what to do and who to read their entire lives. I think blogs are wonderful simply because for the first time in history, everyone's, or anyone's, opinion is available--not just politicians, academics, scientists, and various other people who feel they know what is best for "the people."

I could go on and on, about blogs and about other forms of text--TV, film, photos, etc., but then I would be working on a new thesis, and well, I've got my hands full with the one I'm already working on. (My thesis does tie into this one, though. Doesn't it?) Thank you for letting me rant incoherantly.