Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Too Many Words


[gary daily col. 22 June 23, 2005]

“It is said that people are not as readily deceived by window display, but we all know better than this.”

-L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and founder of The National Association of Window Trimmers

Have you been to Philadelphia lately? It seems the “Cradle of Liberty,” home to historic structures such as Benjamin Franklin’s House, Carpenter’s Hall, the Second Bank of the United States, and the holiest of holies when it comes to Revolutionary era sites, Independence Hall, are going high tech. This “high tech” catch-phrase can mean anything from credit card enabled soft drink machines that work to Bush supported Star Wars systems that don’t. In this case, however, we’re talking about adding entertainment value to experiencing history by putting into place (use your best Ed Sullivan voice here) the really big “Lights of Liberty” show.

I haven’t personally experienced “Lights of Liberty,” though I have read a good deal about the American Revolution and the place of Philadelphia in the Revolution. Should I assume that listening to “MP-3 audio” of actors playing characters from the revolutionary period on headphones while, according to a New York Times report, “56 computerized projectors splash historical scenes on the facades of the buildings” would add a great deal to my understanding and appreciation of the Spirit of ‘76? Gosh, it sounds as good as a TV program. Only bigger.

It’s difficult to deny the reality of technology’s role in turning us into a visual, flash and splash oriented culture. This invariably pushes us away from a reading and thinking about words culture. We mistakenly, or lazily, believe that to see it is to experience it and to see it and hear it is to really know it. That “it” can range from the landforms along the Colorado River to the iconoclastic content of Rolling Stone magazine. As T-shirts and bumper stickers (almost) proclaim, “It Happens.” And “’it” happens in the neighborhood of the Liberty Bell and, even more distressingly, in local libraries.

I once paid a half-drunk entrepreneur in Moab, Utah, a saw-buck to take myself and a covey of flat-lander rubes on his smelly boat one night to see the “Lights on the Canyon” show. Does shining powerful floodlights on the rock formations along the Colorado River bank qualify as “high tech”? The next day I hiked up into those canyons, an experience which required some work and some sweat. I’ve told many people about that hike, you’re some of the few who have heard about my “Lights on the Canyon” fiasco. The ticket I bought to view those low tech created shadows is a heavy personal embarrassment today.

Moving from the silly trying to be sublime to the significant about to turn silly, it's reported that Rolling Stone magazine is in deep trouble. It seems this publication is suffering print journalism’s increasingly fatal malady, too many words. Long articles featuring the acclaimed (you choose) radical-activist-guerilla-new journalism-cutting edge-investigative reporting by people like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson once made this magazine the must-read source of the “youth culture.” The latest edition of this audience now gets its news from joke TV news parodies and has traded ideology for attitude by making Eminem its guru of the season.

Poor out-of-step Rolling Stone. Cut loose by a generation lacking the powers of concentration once found among drug-addled fans of “The Doors” and “The Grateful Dead.” What to do? Here’s one take from an advertising executive: "It seems when people are trying to develop media vehicles for young people, they are going for the shorter attention span. I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with that. I just hope that Rolling Stone keeps its heritage of being the source of great reporting on youth culture."

Uh, huh. Sure.

I look for Rolling Stone to go the way of People, US, and MAXIM. It will be filled with photos, charts, thumbnail bios, and . . . more photos--abandoning the need for people to actually read anything more than the captions under photos. When America’s youth says, “Get real!” increasingly they mean show me the pictures, slip me the pirated DVD, visit this chat room, and don’t ever tell me, “You’ve got to read this.”

If this aversion to the word on the page was limited to “entertainments” who would complain? After all, we’re Americans. We work hard and we play hard, so why read? But libraries, which once were the guardians and champions of the world of books, are increasingly being turned into video stores, media palaces, and attention deficit dens for the digitally minded. Book and journal budgets in public and university libraries are being cut or put on hold in order to pay for the high tech installations of computers, servers, software, printers, etc. and the uncounted support costs that invariably accompany such structural changes in mission.

None of this, however much money is spent wisely or wastefully, can ever replace or be a substitute for books. The vast and comfortable and demanding world of print can never be digitized out of existence. With the exception of the three people who believe Wired magazine ranks with the Bible, the Koran, and the lost commentaries on Zoroaster, who steps forward to say the future is a world of pixels and the age of print has passed?

And I’m still looking for a person who has, by uncoerced choice, read an entire book on a computer screen. The human experience of reading deeply can never take place through “interfacing” with a piece of glass any more than the history of liberty, the wonders the Colorado River landscape, or even a thoughtful Rolling Stone essay on Hip Hop culture can ever be translated into a high tech type light show.

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