One of my students was actually upset the other day because one of her classmates asked her if there are Spark notes for M.T. Anderson’s Feed. Our AP class had read it early in the year, and now the rest of the seniors had been assigned to read it. This student pointed out the irony of a book about the devolution of language, education, and thought being summarized. We (the teachers) loved that the book was not on Spark notes. Yet. I’m sure by next school year, it will be. And in that form, that book will lose all meaning.
Why do so few high school students read? Does it take too long? Probably. Does reading lose out to the myriad other distractions coming through the feed? All the time. These distractions work on me pretty often, and two of my favorite things in the world are reading and writing, and I grew up in a semi-print culture.
I was writing a satire for my ninth grade class this past week, about a teacher (me) assigning an ancient and incomprehensible text (Pride and Prejudice). It was supposed to be a lighthearted, funny satire. But it came out bitter. I’ve been teaching this book for over ten years, and each year it gets harder for the students to understand. Part of me says give it up and replace it with something that’s easier to read. But the other part says that if all the me’s in all the schools out there give up on all the complex texts, we’re one step closer to a world like the one in Feed, where people go to school to learn how to shop.
This year, I’m showing the BBC miniseries, as usual, as we read, but I think I may use the Kiera Knightly version next year. It cuts to the chase. I mean, so what if Elizabeth goes from being a forward thinker for the nineteenth century to pretty much an actual twenty-first century person? At least Wickham’s actually cute this time.
Maybe in twenty more years, if I make it that long, I’ll just show the Lizzie Bennet diaries on Youtube and be done with it. By then, hypotaxis and complex vocabulary will perhaps be beyond the reach of all but the very old. We’ll sit around trying to get the young folks to turn off their brain-internet for a few minutes so we can tell them about the books made of paper and how great it was in the olden days.
Long sentences in a long book seem to genuinely frighten many of the youth of today. After all, we make everything short these days (#trending.) At first, I shied away from Twitter and its woefully inadequate 140 characters. But then I got in the swing, and now I’ve actually even sunk to using numerals 2 stand 4 words. My thinking is that if this #trending is even working on me, then the next generation to be born could maybe have the attention span of a gerbil.
I was thinking about our culture’s skill with blurbing the last few weeks while teaching a unit on film history to my media studies class. I’ve shown the trailers (thanks, Youtube) for a lot of older movies, and my students said about each one: snore, that looks terrible. Some of these have been really excellent, classic movies, but I have to admit, they’re right: the trailers kind of suck. They used to show whole scenes in trailers, and they just didn’t pack the punch that trailers do today. Today, editors string together a million micro-scenes. Moments that don’t go together, some that aren’t even in the final movie, and then they add a great song! I pretty much want to see every movie for every trailer I see, as long as it doesn’t involve a cartoon rodent or Nicolas Cage. The trailers all look amazing. Too bad that most of the movies I’ve seen in the last two years have been crap. Most of the time, I should just download the trailer on my iPad, have ten kernels of popcorn, and call it a night.
I do worry about a Brave New World like the one in Feed. As Neil Postman said, maybe the problem in the future won’t be that they’ll take away the books, or burn them, but that there won’t be anybody left with any interest in reading them. All forms of art evolve to reflect the culture that spawns them. But what if, as so many authors of dystopian novels have suggested, we are going the other way?