Jan. 14th, 2008

heron61: (Gryphon)
Here's an interesting, but also highly problematic and deeply flawed New Yorker article on declining literacy. The figures are widely known and indisputable – on average, people read less for pleasure now than they did a decade ago, and this trend has been going on since at least the introduction of television. Yet one of the many ways pretty much everyone reading this post is different from the average American (and for that matter, the average inhabitant of the UK, the decline in reading extends well beyond the US) is that I'm assuming that all of us have read a number of books for pleasure in the last year, and more than half of all Americans have not read any books for pleasure in the last year.

The article then goes on to discuss everything from a variety of moderately dire (and somewhat unlikely) predictions as well as some discussion of differences in pre-literate vs. literate modes of thought [[1]]. I'd need to see considerably more studies to be fully convinced about the different modes of thought among literate and pre-literate people. I'm also not particularly worried about the majority of our culture reverting to pre-literate modes of thought – I don't see the emphasis on reading in school being particularly likely change anytime soon. Also, there is a big difference between an oral culture without enduring records, and a culture with recorded podcasts and audiobooks, both of which are quite popular indeed. I could easily see reading falling further out of fashion of an entertainment, but even with various technological changes, reading will remain useful. At most, I can see reading becoming something like algebra, where everyone learns it in school, some people use it in their work, and only a few people ever use it as a method of entertainment.

As for the aforementioned predictions, being trained as a historian, I take a bit of a longer view. Prior to the invention of printing presses, literacy was inherently limited to the elite. Even with the widespread use of printing in the early 17th century, literacy was relatively uncommon (if no longer rare) and popular novels and the idea of reading as mass entertainment did not exist. Also, the people who read mostly read old classics, instructional and religious books, and various essays and scholarly works. The first magazines only came about in the middle of the 18th century. This trend continued until the 19th century, when the first widely-printed popular novels came about (made possible by significantly decreased printing and papermaking costs – the degree to which technology drives and determines culture is always quite profound).

When you look at the situation in this longer view, 200 years ago, people were reading considerably less then they are now, even if you only include people who knew how to read. The mass culture of reading for pleasure is less than 2 centuries old. It largely started in the first few decades of the 19th century, with stories in popular magazines and the rise of cheap novels and spread to become major social phenomena. By the early 20th century, mass market books had become respectable (at least if they were in the correct genres) and truly vast number of people were reading significant numbers of books for pleasure. Then, television came around in the middle of the last century, and the gradual decline began.

However, while on-line music is already very important and on-line video is still in the early phase of rapid growth and will become very big indeed (until the difference between on-line video and TV utterly vanishes sometime within the next 10-20 years), text is not going to vanish from the internet. More importantly, I'm guessing that IM, blogs, and the spread of fanfiction have all gotten younger people writing for entertainment and communication far more than ever before. No, they won't be reading great literature for pleasure, but few people ever did, even when reading was at its height. Writing will clearly remain a useful means of communication until someone figures out electronic telepathy, and at that point, all bets are off and I won't even begin to speculate honestly about what things will be like.

I was also interested to see one absence from the article I linked to, one very obvious and important absence. Half the population of the US, Canada, and the UK rarely read for pleasure, this half is not defined by race, class, or education level, it's defined by gender. On average, women in all three nations read several times more than men and in these nations, only 1/5 of all fiction being read is read by men. This figure is unavoidable in any surveys about reading preferences and among educators who discuss reading, and yet in articles like the one above that are more focused on literary culture, it is an obvious fact that is almost always ignored or downplayed.

In any case, what we have is not a large-scale general decline in reading for pleasure. Instead, we have a mild decline in women reading and a serious decline in men reading – I don't know the reasons why, but that's what's actually happening.

[[1]] Not unexpectedly, my first thought in reading about non-literate modes of thought was to be fascinated by them and to consider that if/when the tech to do so becomes available, I'd love to be able to easily and temporarily switch between literacy and non-literacy so that I could experience the different modes of thought, and then start finding situations where each mode was either superior or more enjoyable.
heron61: (Gryphon)
When I first heard about this show, I was exceedingly unimpressed. I've only seen the first of the Terminator movies, and found it enjoyable in a very 1980s disposable action picture fashion. The very idea of the 2nd film disturbed me - having the hulking Aryan villain from the first film become one of the heroes of the 2nd film seemed too close a reflection of the changing attitudes about fascism in the US. Also, given that the Terminators films seem like a far better choice for adaptation into a survival horror console game than a TV series, I was very dubious about the concept.

Also, the idea of a TV show where the female protagonist's primary claim to fame is being the mother of the (naturally male) messiah, did not sit particularly well with me. However, I heard several positive reviews and saw a preview which revealed that this time the robot ally was played by Summer Glau, who did such a marvelous job playing River Tam on Firefly. Also, not only is the writer's strike making worthwhile (or even watchable) TV even more difficult to find that it was before, I'm always willing to give an action show with a female protagonist a try. Of late, such shows have far too often been sexist crap like the new Bionic Woman, which I was pleased to hear was slipping badly in ratings, and I was hoping for something better.

I'm still dubious about the long, or even medium-term prospects of this show – killing Terminator-of-the-week seems a particularly dull formula, but I enjoyed it and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was significantly less sexist than most TV, and especially than most action TV.

I still remember when I first saw Xena Warrior Princess, and then 2 years later the Buffy The Vampire Slayer and La Femme Nikita shows, I wondered if geeky action TV was finally growing up and overcoming many decades of media sexism. Then we had George Bush and September 11, and suddenly geek TV was back to being sexist crap like Heroes or utter crap like Stargate. Action shows with female protagonists have been relatively rare of late, but there have been a few fairly good ones like Blood Ties. Also, and equally positively, there have been shows like The Dresden Files and Burn Notice, which featured male protagonists, but which had a large number of competent, interesting and generally very positive female characters. Unfortunately, such shows rarely last more than one season. If you ever hear some right-wing jackass comment about how sexism is dead or at least no longer very important in the US, tell them to turn on TV and look at what they see there.

In any case, I've only watched the first episode, and I have no idea how it will play out over the next few, but it looks both more interesting and more positive than I expected.

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