My friend from nowhere, Hub Jones reported sadly the other day, “Reading is dead.”
“What?” I replied to his text, which burst in on me as I was working on my latest novel. “Just call me,” I quickly added before his thick thumbs could tap out a reply.
So here’s the gist of Hub’s thoughts on the matter. He recently made some changes to a phone bill and the company sent him a photo of what his new bill’s total might be in the future but with no explanation. No, the explanation came later in the form of a video. There was a guy explaining the costs he’d be responsible for in the coming months.
“Clearly, reading is over,” he lamented on the phone, before also attacking writing, noting how kids in schools spend very little ti e on handwriting and cursive has been banished from most school curricula because it’s an old world skill people won’t need in the future.
I was tired and still trying to figure out how the hero in my latest book could avoid being poisoned so I just listened and nodded and said, it’s not that bad.
“Not that bad? You’re crazy, man. This is an all out assault on the one thing that’s made this country great, literacy!”
Hub is a history guy and he went on to note a bunch of facts of which we are both aware, like there were more colleges in the American colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War than there were in England. How America’s public education system was almost unique in the world for its scale and scope. How the ideas of the revolution were spread through pamphlets that could not only be read privately but shared aloud in safe spaces.
“This is going to create a peasant class. They’re trying to create serfs!”
“Okay, okay,” I soothed and gave up trying to rescue my protagonist for now. “I see your point, but it’s not going to happen.”
“Why, because it hasn’t, yet? Because there’s no evidence of a literate society ever going illiterate? Of an advanced civilization falling into nothing? Hmm? Because of history?”
“No, because of novels.”
“You’re crazy. Look at the evidence, man! Youtube channels where you learn to fix your car or your cabinets. Instructions on how to assemble furniture or bikes or other consumer goods don’t even have writing, they’re just pictures and arrows. Sometimes you just get a QR code to scan which takes you to a video. You’re kidding yourself because you’re afraid that you entered another dying industry just at its last gasp.”
(For those interested, I was a newspaper reporter for 14 or so years and Hub insists that newspapers are now dead, though I’ve shown him both physical and digital copies of them. Our main difference is that I think news is still being reported, it’s just being delivered over different formats. I’m not convinced it’s better today, especially the comics, but I think it’s still alive and still changing.)
After letting him finish, which took a while. He went into some extensive examples of corporations using videos to train people on everything from sexual harassment to how to safely lift something and then on to more school stuff. Finally he took a breath and I jumped in.
“I’m not talking about my novels, at least not, yet. But clearly people like novels. They like holding them and reading them and seeing where they will take them. They’re not just going to give that up. Would they just give up chocolate? Look at all the sales that have been racked up…”
“Just a last gasp,” Hub interjected.
“No, it’s a lift from the quarantines for sure, but not a last gasp. Look, my expectations are that sales will fall off a bit when this pandemic gets under control, but I also suspect people will want to retreat to something a little more comforting and little less techy after all the zooms and days spent with noses in phones and staring into screens.”
“Those are habits. People aren’t going to give them up,” Hub said.
I sighed. “I think you’re partially right, there are some people who won’t read much. But that’s been the case for generations now. Everyone knows someone who left high school and never cracked open another novel in his or her life. And yes, video instructions are a huge part of life and will remain so. But people are still going to read and are still going to write. Well, at least enough of them will and that’s the hope.
It’s like my books. There is a ton of competition for readers in this day and age. People are publishing books and stories left and right and in multiple formats. There are comics and novels and graphic novels. And don’t forget, those videos need scripts.
For me as a novel writer, I remain hopeful the age of reading has not ended. Hub, the truth is that what your phone company sent you is not a clear signal that reading is dead, it’s just a video.
Keep writing, keep reading.