I spent the day at a conference for educators -- a very not-me thing to do because it demanded some of the things I despise most, like going places, doing things and talking to people, but I went. I went because it was free, and because it promised me no agenda and I wanted to participate in an event where nothing might happen. The goal was to allow the participants to decide what they wanted to talk about spontaneously and pursue the topics that were most pressing and important. Naturally, I assumed that meant that they would talk about me. In that regard, I was sorely disappointed.
The sessions were interesting because they showed what happens when non-professionals are allowed to drive their own development and ask the questions which really get to them as problematic. I even worked up the guts to lead a session. True to form, I took the chance at a conference focusing on education reform to ask the question "Do we really need educational reform?" My answer was a resounding maybe. Huzzah.
During one of the sessions a question arose about literacy. Ignoring for the moment the question of whether students need a completely new type of literacy which has them demonstrate familiarity with digital media and non-traditional text, the discussion was about the replacing of paper with electronic versions of text. There were many people who thought that the switch was inevitable for reasons ranging from environmentalism to cost to weight. Some said that books will remain because of the Sabbath observant people who can't use electronics on holidays and because of that visceral experience of holding a book. I came at it from another angle. It seems that reading often has to be accidental and electronic reading is rarely that.
When I grew up (in any sense that I did), I read because I was bored. I picked up whatever was lying around -- a book I had read before, a book in the bookshelf that had a pretty cover, the side of the cereal box or a magazine. There was stuff to keep my eyes busy. And as I had precious few friends (and even fewer non-imaginary ones) I had plenty of opportunity to need to keep myself busy. Sure, eventually we had an Atari 2600 and a computer and a television for 15-20 stations, but for the most part, when I ate, or on the Sabbath or when there was just nothing on, I read. I stumbled across books we had in the house like the People's Almanac, The Jump Book, The Whole Earth Catalogue, and the Langston Hughes Reader. I read the newspaper cover to cover, and spent time with National Geographic, Gourmet, Smithsonian, Consumer Reports (and Consumer Review, I think) and others. I rarely sat down with a book I specifically had been aiming to read. I just dove into whatever was around. Sometimes, I opened to a random page. Sometimes, I reread favorite passages and then jumped around when one word or phrase reminded me of something. I bounced between texts finding connections that could never have been intended. I learned to read and find whatever there was to find, even if by accident.
Fast forward to 2004 or so. I was sitting in a graduate education class, bored out of (then hair covered) skull. So I took out my Palm Pilot (the i705 for those of you keeping score at home) and started reading Fight Club which I had downloaded. I moved through page by page but if I wanted to check something on an earlier page, I was out of luck. If I wanted to write in the margin, again, no luck. The reading had to be by appointment and had to be linear. Since then I have thought about reading and watched the electronic texts develop. For all their bells and whistles, they still have to be the objects of the intention to read. You can't pick one up and see what has been left there. Turn it on. Log it in. No accidents. Words are no longer the diversion.
If we want to increase literacy, we have to value spontaneous and unintended reading. Yes, there is a time and place for intentional and close reading (in the same way that writing should mostly be intentional and measured but there is a time and place for spontaneous and unintended writing). We have to increase the chances of happy accidents by leaving the newspaper around, buy Dr. Bronner's soaps, writing them letters long-hand, or stacking books around the house in the hopes that, in a moment of boredom and desperation, children will pick them up instead of a smartphone.
Or just make them read my blog. That works.