Wednesday, July 27, 2005


I recently wrote a blurb about the Reign of the Emperor-Prelate-Dictator George Junior and the Age of Mediocrity in my blogging. As a counterpoint to my point about the dumbing down of America, my friend Diana sent me this link about a book by a guy named Steven Johnson titled "Everything Bad is Good for You." (I also saw him talking about his book on NBC's Today Show a few weeks ago .)

In his book, he posits that, in fact, the influx of seemingly mindless entertainment being spewed at us today--i.e. video games, the internet, reality shows, etc.--is actually better for us than sticking ourselves in a corner with a book and reading for hours on end. Johnson argues that video games teach kids (and adults) to multi-task, strategize, interact socially, and increase dexerity. Books, on the other hand, are linear, isolated, and "chronically understimulate the senses." (Granted, he says he's joking, but still--he is trying to get a point across here.)

I must say, I find his book/theories fascinating only because they present a side of video games and contemporary entertainment that I had failed to appreciate. I'll grant that playing games or watching some of today's sitcoms and reality shows are far more intriguing than previous games and t.v. programs. I'll agree with Johnson that watching t.v. these days is "harder" in the sense that the characters are more fully developed and situations move at a faster clip than the, as he puts it, "linear" and "simplistic plotlines" of the 80s.

Where I disagree is I believe encouraging kids to read is just as, if not more, important than allowing them to spend hours in front of the computer or t.v.

Here's what reading does for us:

Reading shows us how thoughts and ideas are properly constructed in a written medium. Verbal and visually graphic communication are very different and require a separate set of brain functions from the ones we must develop for both writing and reading. For example, my ability to speak (verbalize) in German is much stronger than my ability to read and write in German. The only way to improve the latter skill set is by actually reading and writing in my second language.

Reading stimulates our imaginations, forcing us to create pictures and images in our mind's eye that are unique to us. It is a rare occasion that I'll actually see a movie adaptation of a book I've read. I still haven't seen Captain Corelli's Mandolin or Tim Burton's James and the Giant Peach, because my visualizations of the characters and settings in these books are images I cherish and don't want ruined by someone else's vision.

Reading teaches us to seek out and cherish quiet moments. One of the things I LOVE about reading is that it's a quiet activity, even when you're reading outloud to your kids. It creates a space and place that is both separate and shared. Some of my happiest reading memories are from elementary school when we'd all gather on the carpet around the teacher who would then read to us such classics as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or A Wrinkle in Time or The Adventures of the Great Brain. We were together as a group, but we each had our own imaginations and images. As an adult, I often tire of the dribble on t.v. and its mind numbing effect on my brain (there's a reason it's called the dummy box or the boob tube.) To supplant the drain I feel from too much of nothing, I turn off the t.v. and hunker down with a book. At the end of my reading session, I feel refreshed and invigorated.

Reading teaches us critical thinking, encourages comprehension, and opens wide the door of full communication. I am astonished, of late, by the decline in good writing and solid reading comprehension skills in many young people these days. The ability to read and comprehend the written word, as well as the ability to write well, are skills that are crucial and shouldn't be understated or underappreciated.

Finally, if reading is the counterpoint to video games and t.v., how come so many kids and their parents stood in line waiting for the stroke of midnight to be able to buy the latest installment of Harry Potter? If reading is so passe, how come there are more publishers and books published today than there were ten years ago? If video games are so good for us, how come we aren't teaching reading, writing, arthimetic, and gaming? Or maybe we are and that's why funding for reading and arts programs are dying.

Either way, I'll take a book any day over a video game or t.v. show.

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