Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tweeter: the generational reading gap

A few months ago at the gym I was reading Anna Karenina on the stationary bike. Not your typical recreational reading, I suppose- which prompted the elderly gentleman pedaling next to me to strike up a conversation. It turned out he was a classic lit lover himself, a retired Political Science professor craving intellectual stimulation. We talked books for 45 minutes and exchanged email addresses.

Since then we've had more literary conversations- both in person and electronically- which are mutually satisfying in their symbiosis of two bookworms, but also in their enlightenment regarding today's reading habits. He finds it fascinating that any Millennials ("Your generation only knows ten words"), subscribers to technology like Facebook and "Tweeter", would invest time in the world's literary canon. I, in turn, find it a fresh surprise to be able to connect on an even plane with a generational superior. Our tech-driven society is over the speed limit in the fast lane, Internet axons firing like fireworks to connect people, but when we readers really slow down, embrace traditional media, and make room in our brains and our lives for quality literary material, that's when the real engagement can begin.

Some statistics are hopeful: in a post entitled "Good News About The Future of Reading," GalleyCat cited a New York Magazine survey of 100 Manhattanites in which only 10% of interviewees hadn't bought books in the last year. And that doesn't mean that that 10% didn't read any. But The Guardian's Books Blog notes how "time for serious reading appears to be getting more and more pinched" as entertainment media enacts "the very theft of our thinking space". The word "reading" itself has shifted in meaning, from connoting a dedicated task to, now, a scattershot experience as our eyeballs flick from one piece of text to another.

Conversing with the old professor has made the value of true reading resonate with me even more in the context of my generation's loosening grip on traditionally published material. Operating in a workplace devoted to shifting text from print to digital has also heightened my appreciation for this old media. I blog, I have Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, God knows I email. But I also check books out from the library, get Barnes&Noble gift cards as birthday presents, and read print magazines.

I've grown up around reading- my mom used to read to me after tucking me into bed, our living room has always had stocked shelves, my dad's home office is a veritable library. So perhaps the contrast between my generation's reading habits and those of my elders is even more poignant for me, my job and personal inclination toward reading aside. In any case, I think society's efforts toward digital conversion, often focused on seniors' acclimation to computers and the Internet, should be focused at least as energetically on print conversion for my age bracket, encouraging adherence to quality reading. I've said it before, but: what a novel idea.

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