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A few words on reading between the digital lines

By Jules Quartly | China Daily | Updated: 2012-03-14 10:43

A few words on reading between the digital lines

Reading is born again, having risen from the ashes of books to become principally a screen activity.

This should be cause for celebration and to my mind it would be understandable if educators and legislators held hands, sang hallelujah and danced round in circles.

If the opposite was true and reading was in terminal decline, a state that has oft been described and predicted, they would be wringing their hands and warning of the end of civilization: "The end of the word is nigh!"

Flat-Earthers warned from the 1970s and '80s that TV was addictive and would make people stupid because they would rather watch the tube than read literature or history - and images rather than words would be the language of the future.

This Flat-Earth attitude returned, like waves to the shore, when computer gaming became popular and txtng became a shrthnd method of communicating.

"How terrible," they would say, and trot out the unchallenged benefits of reading, while adding phones would make spelling obsolete.

For instance, in 2008, The Dumbest Generation was published, calling America's youth stupid because they spend their time social networking, wrapping themselves in a "generational cocoon filled with puerile banter and coarse images".

At the same time, educators and legislators in the United States were getting all self-righteous when a National Endowment for the Arts study cooked up a mishmash of figures that appeared to sound the death knell for literary culture.

Subtitled "To Read or Not to Read" (letting us all know where they were coming from), it suggested adults read fewer books and kids do less "non-required" reading.

The thing with these kinds of studies, which claim objectivity, is they frame the debate in their favor, quoting the decline of paper book sales, but not the uptick in e-book sales.

They log the time we spend with a book before turning out the light and going to sleep, rather than monitoring the amount of reading we do online all day, every day. They also preset the idea of what kind of reading has value - think 16th century plays, rather than what X thinks about Y on Sina Weibo. I'm not convinced.

I am reading more books and a greater variety than ever because I always have a book handy. I downloaded Amazon's top 100 books for 2011 onto my phone and the 2012 list will arrive before I get through them all. I always have my phone, ergo, I always read.

With 3G, 4G, boosted bandwidths and the Internet universe expanding at a rate similar to the universe itself, the miracle of reading at all times, everywhere, has happened.

iPads and Kindles have opened a whole new vista for reading, now that screen brightness, reading in direct sunlight and battery life have been sorted out.

Speaking of screens, some people have tried to come up with new words to describe this migration from paper to screens - like screening, or screading - but, actually, this is unnecessary. When people switched from scratching waxed tablets with styluses to writing on paper with pens, we didn't need a new word. But there was an explosion in writing and reading, and I think the same is happening now.

If there was a line showing the number of words an average person read every year over the past 2,000 years it would veer up and off the graph in the past decade or so, in the information age, where reading is king.

There has never ever been more reading. It's like breathing. We don't even know we're doing it.

So lets celebrate, because you know, in the beginning there was the word and now there are more words than ever.

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