Thursday was World Book Day, a day to celebrate the pleasures of books and of reading. UNESCO designated March 1 as World Book day 15 years ago; a number of events (such as “Where’s Wally” flash mobs) were held in the UK. A World Book Day website contains resources for schools, a number of games and a free app featuring six short stories “by some of the best Young Adult authors in the world!” aAWorld Book Day 2012 YouTube channel that features the “Storytelling Superstar Competition.” The World Book Day Twitter account also hosted a “lively discussion about “if you could be a fictional character from any book for a day, who would you be?”; Lyra, the heroine of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was the top choice.
The Guardian reports that Prime Minister David Cameron pledged his support for the day and declared Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax his favorite children’s book (though let us hope that he his fondness is directed towards the book rather than the movie).
World Book Day is celebrated in 100 countries around the globe though it is not such a big deal here in the US, where there are certainly a number of other events promoting reading and books. Living in the current digital age in which children as just as likely to tap a screen rather than turn a page, it seems all the more necessary to emphasize not just the importance of books but — at the risk of sounding corny — their magic. As awe-inspiring as it is to brush a finger across an iPad screen and see a picture or a video of a character is full colors, or to tap on a word and hear it read out loud, there still is something very special about finding yourself seeing, in your mind’s eyes, Odysseus taunting the Cyclops in his cave as you read Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey. Some poet uttered the words for that story thousands of years ago and yet they still have the power to entertain and inspire.
Hyperconnectivity and Cognitive Functioning
The jury is still out about whether digital devices will promote more reading, and love of reading and books, in children. A recent Pew Research Center survey considers whether the sort of avid, constant use of technological devices among teenagers and 20-somethings — of the “millennials” — might affect them cognitively. 1,021 technology insiders, critics and students were surveyed about the effects of hyperconnectivity on millennials. 55 percent thought that they will be “wired differently” than older generations, with “good results for finding answers quickly and without shortcomings in their mental processes.” But 42 percent were critical of how hyperconnectivity may alter cognitive functioning, noting that younger generations “would be easily distracted, would lack deep thinking skills and would thirst only for instant gratification.”
Survey participants said that, in 2020, key job skills would include “public problem-solving through cooperative work, searching effectively for information online, and weighing the quality of information.” The “ability to read one thing and think hard about it for hours” will become of “far less consequence” to most people, Jonathan Grudin, Microsoft Inc’s top researcher, noted. But shortened attention spans could lead to “stagnation in technology and even in literature,” says Alvaro Retena, distinguished technologist at Hewlett-Packard Co. That is, the ability to apply a sustained amount of focus to a topic or problem may not be considered a “key job skill,” but has a definite place in innovation and, it could be argued, in remaining competitive in a global market.
The internet makes it seem that we can find out about anything within a few keystrokes and a click of link. Students accustomed to getting answers and information so quickly may know some about a lot of topics but none in depth. Will they find the rigors of really researching the full scope of a topic (including by reading books that are not readily accessible on the internet) and thinking through arguments too tedious, with rewards that are too far off the in the murky distance (even years away)?
Is there so much hoopla about celebrating books because we live in the age of their demise; in which sustained reading of thousand-page novels and epic poems is an endangered species? Or, to strike a more positive note, does the Pew study about hyperconnectivity and cognitive functioning show us how and why we need to change our education system?
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Photo by Danny Nicholson