There has been a lot of discussion lately about the effects of the interweb on reading. Nicholas Carr and his fascinating article, “Is Google Making us Stoopid?,” brought up the idea that Google and the nature of the internet in general is making it more and more difficult to thoughtfully read books and longer texts. The typical internet experience is made up of little kernels of information plucked from different locations, allowing you to create your own whole. This is in opposition to the previous model where an expert writes his own coherent view of a certain topic and you get one view in its entirety. These are two very different ways of thinking, as well as two very different ways of reading.
Another article, “Literacy Debate – Online, R U Really Reading?” by Mokoto Rich asks us if this new type of internet reading is an enemy of traditional reading or if it too should be respected as another type of literacy. It is fascinating to hear how one of the children in the article, Nadia, does read, but instead of books it is fan fiction. These are stories produced by regular people who can have the story go whatever direction they want. Nadia even writes her own story about a person who dies and is reincarnated as a half cat half human. It is instances like this in which the internet really amazes me.
I am of the opinion that this sort of literacy is equally as valid as traditional book literacy. In Nadia’s case, she is reading other people’s work, engaging with the material, and inspired to create her own. This is literacy at its finest. But what I have come to realize is there are all different sorts of literacy. There is the basic literacy level where you gain knowledge of reading, grammar, spelling and can understand sentences. But from there there are countless types of specialized literacies. Being able to read a legal brief, a medical chart, or a philosophical tome aren’t things that many of us have to do unless we work in one of those professions, but they still all constitute different modes of literacy. My point is that you can be literate in only the things that are necessary for you, your career and your interests.
I would argue, though, that in order to be a well rounded individual in this day and age one needs to have in some measure the two diametrically opposed types of literacy: web reading and book reading. The web is so ubiquitous that there is no escaping it. Even print newspapers refer you to their online content. This is not anything groundbreaking but, the internet is shaping our culture, and if people want to be a part of that culture they need to know how to get information from the web and understand it. A person is not engaged in society if they shun the web.
On the other hand, those who spend all their time on the internet reading blogs and social networking are missing out on a big part of humanity as well. No matter how many wikipedia articles, blog posts, or sparknotes, you read about The Odyssey you will still never capture the same feeling as actually reading it. You will not be able to understand Odysseus’ unbounded joy when he again sees his beloved Ithaca. So much of our culture and knowledge is contained in books. You can get much of this knowledge from the web, but it will be very superficial. You will not have the same depth of understanding you would get from reading a book. Thus, being able to sit down, concentrate, and read in depth books will continue to be a desirable skill.
Therefore, some degree of literacy is necessary to succeed in life, such as the ability to read and write. It is not necessary though to be able to sort through web pages (John McCain has his wife do it). It also isn’t necessary to read books or even long articles. Even though neither of these things is necessary, I believe that they are still both essential to live a full and flourishing human life.