Literacy: The Benefit of Time and Effort

The gift of an Amazon Kindle for Christmas made me reflect on how our high-speed culture has impacted reading and literacy.

This Christmas, I did something I thought I’d never do: I asked for – and received – an Amazon Kindle. It was a big step for me, a proud bookworm, into the world of new reading technology.

Initially, I resisted owning an electronic book reader. It just seemed so…well, cold. Yes, I am a bookworm, but definitely an “old-school” one. I haunt libraries and bookstores, particularly independent and used bookstores; I have been a loyal customer of Montclair Book Center since my early teens, having spent hours in its aisles. I find the smell of old books intoxicating, and nothing beats the feel of a book in my hands. Anyone who pays me a visit at home will see full bookcases in both the living room and bedroom; a reflection of my lifelong love of reading – and writing – the printed word.

Mind you, this book-lust has gotten me into trouble more than a few times. It was one of the many things that my wife learned to accept: my bringing to the home more than a few books. (She’ll disagree with this assessment.) Also, throughout my nearly 40 years, I have left more than a few library fines in Belleville, at college, and points in between. However, my own rationalization for this is that I “purge” my collection at least a few times a year, and donate those I cull to Belleville Public Library, as well as other libraries in the area.

What is it about reading and writing that attracts me so? Probably the same reason that readers and writers have given for centuries: Even the simplest of sentences, when well-crafted, can open new vistas through the power of words. Ernest Hemingway wrote simple sentences in his fiction, but constructed them in such a way that the reader’s mind usually filled in the details. James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake offer some of the most intricate writing in Western literature, but with patience and time, reading them is a truly enjoyable experience. The man who gave me my first reporting job was a traditional newsman – facts, facts, facts – but crafted his words so that not one was wasted.

Some writers are so talented they make the act of writing seem effortless. The key word in that sentence is seem; it takes a lot of patience, time and effort to write well. Unfortunately, it is the ever-decreasing element of time that I believe is harming literacy and writing. Because our world now moves so quickly, the societal demand swings toward the immediate and direct, rather than the slow and the abstract. Today there are innumerable ways to express oneself thanks to the Internet, yet the quality of that expression has become victim to the popular demand of faster and shorter. A prime example of this is from a friend with whom I went through graduate school. A former teacher, she horrified me with tales of students submitting papers containing Internet slang like "LOL."

This desire for the fast and the more direct affects every part of our lives. The Republican primaries are underway, and most of those candidates speak in sound bites, with not a lot of substance. The only exception among the current candidates is Rick Santorum, a man whose beliefs and opinions are polar opposite to mine, yet has my respect because he is literate and proudly displays such, comfortably quoting C.S. Lewis and other great writers.

I am by no means claiming that fast and short isn’t always warranted or necessary. It’s one of the reasons why I asked for a Kindle this Christmas; it doesn’t supplant literature, it just presents it in a new form. We can still desire short and fast, while providing necessary space in our lives for those things – like reading and writing – that provides the great benefit of literacy through patience and effort.

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