The Future of Reading

How often have we heard these refrains from parents about their children’s reading habits? They’re too engrossed with their Wii players to bother with books. Schoolwork has left them no time to curl up in a couch with a book. There are too many video games out there! Too many distractions, cable television programs: MTV, V, Hannah Montana, malls, coming-out bashes, birthdays on top of extra-curricular studies: math, science, music lessons, etc. Meanwhile, children of less fortunate parents bemoan their parents’ inability or ignorance for their needs for books.
In a recent television documentary by BBC that sparked a controversy over the correct method to measure the intelligence of today’s youth, the experts argued that the ignorance of today’s youth about classical works of Homer and Socrates et al should not be construed as their lack of intelligence or the decline of education. Today’s youth knows more than their parents about virtual technology: blogging, java script, cookies, cellular technology, systems software, video games, and to some extent, black holes, cloning and the superstring theory. Their times confront them with this knowledge and as a result in their daily struggle to stay abreast with the rest of their peers, their time is consumed in grappling with what is immediately before them. Should they be blamed for not knowing who wrote The Marriage of Figaro or what to make of Anabasis? However, one is persuaded to believe, should they be challenged to dip into Mozart or the writings of Xenophon, they are now more equipped than ever before with the most advanced technology to find out about them within seconds, just a click away to a wealth of information waiting in the virtual world of the internet.
Recently Sony introduced a new eBook product called Reader Digital Book. The size of a hard cover novel, this digital book ‘boasts a six-inch display, utilizing e-Link technology that’s almost paper-like.’ The device can ‘hold up to 160 books with expandable memory.’ It costs $299.99.  Just as Mozart, through digital mastering and packaged in CDs and accessible for download thanks to the internet, now reaches many more listeners, books of all kinds will reach more readers worldwide through such a device as Reader Digital Book.
Several years ago in a interview, Ken Kesey, the famed novelist of the psychedelic age who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, revealed that the modern times has allowed anyone to become a writer, in real time. A writer can bypass the publishing giants in New York or London, by posting his or her work on a blog. The problem is, he admits, writers still don’t know how to make a living from their writing in this way. (Ken Kesey remained poor to the day he died, an irony incommensurate with his fame and enlightenment.) Recently in a break from a dour session at The National Congress of Culture in Bogor, I had the opportunity to talk to James F Sundah, the composer of the renowned song Lilin Lilin Kecil (Little Candles) made famous by Chrisye. He told me composers can hardly expect to make money from their albums, with rampant piracy and lack of royalty systems in this country. But, he says enthusiastically, composers shouldn’t just resign helplessly to the onslaught of technology. He then detailed how he penetrated various virtual music communities and lured the members to his blog and download his compositions for a fee. He revealed triumphantly he’s making more money this way now than ever before. “As creators, we should always watch out for new technologies to distribute our works. Especially now in this technologically advanced age,” he says. Albeit, enthused by his admission, but I have yet to hear a similar success story from a writer. I know for a fact that Dewi Lestari, author of the popular Supernova series, released her latest literary works, through an agreement with Telkomsel, to be downloaded to the cellular phone at a reasonable price. However, the last time I met Dee, I didn’t detect the same jubilance as I sensed from James. From both these examples, at least we recognize, although it has missed Ken Kesey by a few years, the opportunity is out there to be plumbed by artists.
While most parents bemoan their children’s disinterest in books, the reality of the publishing world, at least in most parts of the world, paints a different picture. More books have been churned out each year in the past ten years. In fact, some writers liken the publishers’ excessive output to shooting at their own feet. Because most books in print pander to voracious readers of crimes, easy to follow self-help that promises immediate results, various guides from get-rich quick schemes to successful prom nights, romances in various guises, and fantasy. A quick glance at the New York Times will give one the indication where the reading public worldwide is headed: mindless reading. Ironically, the book supplement page in the New York Times boasts the most rigorous literary reviews in the world.
More bookstores have sprung up recently in Jakarta, but look in the shelves for more tasteful selections of books and one will be disappointed. Somehow, the phenomena that afflict most developed countries have found their way in Asia. The same books that enjoy major publicity, boosted by a large promotion fund, in New York and London, will similarly be devoured by a clerk in Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta. Since these books have been accepted by the majority of readers in the more established world, therefore they are read in like-minded conformity. There is hardly any critical resistance toward the trend. It’s as if it is in bad taste to revolt against what the rest of the world has unanimously agreed to be good.
Will these trends cause the decline of the intelligence of our children?  The BBC documentary has amply illustrated that is not likely to happen. The facts I presented above have also shown that books will still be read, albeit not necessarily through printed pages. The more immediate question that needs to be addressed: What will be the future of reading? Will our children simply gobble up Twilight, the ruling vampire romance by Stephenie Meyer, as their main intellectual fare? The answer to the last question, it’s already happened. It’s an undeniable reality. As for the answer to the former question, I think it depends on how we inculcate a sense of intellectual curiosity in our children. Banning them from reading certain books or worse damning them are futile efforts. It will only provoke disdain and more rebellious curiosity in our children. What we should do, I believe, is to stay away from thinking books as the first source of knowledge and intellectuality. The parents are. We should start seeding intellectual curiosity by engaging our children on a wide range of truths: life, death, faith, love, hatred, success & failure and issues of the world: economy, politics, environment. See which one of these subjects finds a foothold in their minds. Challenge their generalized assumptions and engage them thoroughly. In their rebellion, drop a few names of authors, which naturally will puzzle them and in their frustration, draw them to where they can truly look for more solid erudition (or in their minds, refutations): good serious books.  You’ll be surprised how ingeniously these smarty-pants will get back at you! And they will go further for more. That I reckon is how a tradition of intellectuality will begin.  At home. This tradition will check the hubris of the world at the door. Although how they will be reading their books, through a Reader Digital Book or their cellular phones, we can only surmise. And it hardly matters.

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