11 June 2010

What do you want your fiction to be?

Like many librarians, and many of my friends, I am an avid reader. Especially of fiction. So, I was delighted to catch this segment from Tom Ashbrook's On Point . I even jumped up a little in the car while I was driving. But then I started listening. And I started feeling pretty dismayed when Joshua Ferris talked about fiction becoming the new poetry. In that the number of people who read fiction will dwindle to the small number that actively read poetry.

Granted, I read poetry. Daily. But I know most people don't. So, I found it pretty upsetting to think that so few people will read fiction.

Frankly, I was shocked that this comparison was made. I am reminded of this article from the Times about the number of people reading fiction being on the rise. But, I guess Joshua Ferris's point is that we need to face facts: people aren't reading "literary fiction" as much. (Note: there is an interesting debate in the comments from the show on what constitutes "literary fiction", if anything at all.) And as I think about the series of articles in the Times this week about technology, I am struck by the photo of the dad reading to his little girl on the iPad. I'm not against that, mind you. Reading to your children is vital, no matter how you do it. But that doesn't mean that there aren't unintended consequences to the method you employ. I would contend that there is a difference in modeling and memory for a child who sees their parents turning pages of a physical volume than for a child who sees their parents looking at a screen. You could be reading on your iPad or Kindle or iPhone but does your child know that? Do they know you are reading "literary fiction", the newspaper? Or do they just see you in front of a screen? Does that image matter when it comes time for children to choose activities in which to participate.

But, let me step down from my soap box for a minute.

Tom Ashbrook posed the question to the listening audience: what do you want your fiction to be? And that question is a pretty profound one. And connects, I think, to this issue of the unintended consequences of the mode of reading we employ. What do I want my fiction to be? I think it gets to why do we read?

I read fiction to escape. That is a big part of it for me. To explore my imagination, to envision something other than my own situation, to create a vision for other times, other worlds, other people, other paradigms. And I am not even a "fantasy" reader! I think that is why I actually didn't care for Joshua Ferris's "Then We Came to the End". I am, personally (and reading is perhaps the most personal thing one can do), not interested in reading about the mundacity of office life. I lived that already. I know what that means. I am looking for fiction that takes me elsewhere and gets me thinking about other things.

I want my imagination to go to work with the fiction I read. And I wonder if that it is harder to acheive in front of a screen. In part because of the distractive nature of screens (feel free to reread Nicholas Carr on this topic). In part because of my upbringing and my proclivities. There is plenty of literature that suggests that children of the digital age simply don't have the same issues with distraction that "digital immigrants" might have.

Don't get me wrong. We have seen a huge influx of creativity because of what we can do with computers. I work at a college that prides itself on that. But....but. When I think about the decline of reading, when I think about the increase usage of technology, when I think about the issues it raises in parenting, in education, in every dimension of our lives....I just start to feel...uncomfortable. I wonder if we are sacrificing more than we know. Not to say that I know! I don't. But I am wondering. I am questioning. Not if I want to give up technology. Don't be silly....I just got an iPad! But how I want to use it and for what. How I want to cultivate my imagination and why. What I want to read and why I want to read it? And what I expect it to do for me.

Push back on me here. Am I crazy? Am I not seeing a part of this picture? Am I reading way too much into it?

1 comment:

Meredith said...

Sorry for the delayed response -- sick baby and vacation derailed me for a bit. But your post spoke to me when I first read it. I feel that same discomfort, Sarah, and I'm not 100% sure I even know why. I'm totally blown away by what we've been able to accomplish with online tools, how it's brought us together in amazing ways and allowed us to collect knowledge and ideas from the masses. I'd never have been able to get where I am careerwise without the Internet. On the other hand, I do sometimes want to be less connected, or more connected to the world around me rather than the world inside my computer. I wonder what we may have lost by being so connected online, spending so much time looking at a screen and quickly clicking from one thing to the next. I used to read all the time and I've seen that decrease significantly in the years since I got broadband. Ironically, I've started reading a lot more since I got a Kindle, so go figure!

Looking at the books that have come out recently by Nick Carr and Clay Shirky, I think a lot of people are starting to think about not only what the Internet can do for us, but what it is doing TO us and how it is changing the way we socialize, parent, read, learn, etc. It really is changing everything. I'll be curious to see what my son's generation looks like and how they learn, read, play, etc.

I guess we're all going to have to find what works for us in terms of internet technology use, but, as a parent now, I feel like I also need to set an example for my child. I don't want him to see my husband and me chained to our computers. I want him to have our full and undivided attention when we're together. And I think that's what has gotten me thinking much more about these issues too, because it's made me more cognizant of how, once Reed goes to bed, the laptops come out and my husband and I spend much of the rest of weeknight evenings 'interacting' behind laptops.

I don't know what it all means, Sarah, but I feel that discomfort too... if that makes you feel any better. ;-)