Monday, November 19, 2007

Amazon's Kindle: Great, but Does Anyone Still Read Books?

(((Amazon; Kindle; The new NEA study on reading; If it reads like a book and I can write in it like it's a book, it's a book; People are reading less and less, and that's probably a problem)))

So, the word seems to be that the new Kindle is the best digital book hardware ever—readable, reasonably fast, etc.

Okay. That's great. But I really want to be able to write in my books. Give me a stylus and an input touch screen and then we'll be getting somewhere. Also, since the thing has limited size, I sure do need to be able to sync with an external storage device that will also be able to interact with the file in a meaningful way, i.e., let me make more annotations, and move it back to the Kindle if I want to. Alas, the product description plays the lack of sync functionality as a feature, not a bug.

All that said, the free chapter previews and the $10 book prices are great, but I don't know who's going to plop down $400 for a hi-tech book that doesn't even include any books.

Worse, will anyone plop down any cash for a fake book in a culture where we don't even read any more? My friends know I'm not alarmist about stuff like this, but I've been seeing precisely the consequences of the following in my teaching:

Particularly striking, Gioia and Iyengar both said, are the declines that occur between age 9 and age 17 in reading proficiency scores and time spent reading. The percentage of 9-year-olds who say they "read almost every day for fun," the NEA report notes, rose slightly, from 53 percent to 54 percent, between 1984 and 2004. During roughly the same time period, average reading scores for 9-year-olds rose sharply. But the percentage of 17-year-olds reading almost every day for fun dropped from 31 percent in 1984 to 22 percent in 2004, with average reading scores showing steady declines.

Does this matter? Well, yes, it does. I agree that there are lots of other ways to think and to be creative, and that linear thinking is not the be-all end-all. But it is an important skill. And I am worrying that we have younger generations that simply cannot hold a thread, and who cannot read fiction or poetry in a way that suggests they really understand what is being said by the speaker or writer, or (and this is a critical aspect of understanding what is being said) how it is being said by the speaker or writer.

One really bad part of this is that now second- and third-rate colleges are having to try to pick up the slack and teach students skills they should already know. And so college is becoming "High School: The Sequel." But that's probably for another post.


Jason said...

"High School: The Sequel."

Been there, and that was 10 years ago.

If college degrees are becoming de rigueur, and they trend towards representing a similar skill set to what high school degrees should/formerly/are thought to represent, then does the thrust of the overall model resolve to keeping people out of the workforce longer? Cui bono?

Jeffrey said...

Interesting question. I'm not sure there's a correlation, that way, because I'm inclined to think that what's happening is that the public education system is losing students at, well, right around ten years old (see the study stats), maybe 12, and then they get nothing out of high school, and probably nothing out of middle school.

It would take some work to convince me that that situation is a result of more commonplace college education. I think rather that it is a result of not knowing what to do with kids when they're that old. At some point, they have to be transitioned into figuring things out for themselves, and we haven't managed to do that. And every indication is that standardization is only making things worse (why is this surprising? I've never understood why such an individualist-ideological nation would think that education should or could be cookie cutter).

Actually, to extend this point, I suspect what we do is not to not transition them, but to fail to let them continue figuring things out for themselves. But somehow they lose their curiosity in some key kinds of ways.

Anyway, to come back to the main point, I suspect that community colleges have sprung up precisely as a result of two factors: (1) the failure of secondary, if not of elementary, education, and (2) the growing market for college *degrees* (which are not the same thing as a college education). If you see what I mean. That you're "supposed to go to college" only means that you go to a place and get a piece of paper. I think there is no broader cultural sense of the real value, if there is any, to a college education and, in particular, to a liberal arts education.