The Death of Literature

Much focus has been given to the negative effects of social media and digital technology on writing, but less attention has been paid to reading. In the essay Is Digital Communication Good or Bad- or Both by Professors Graff and Birkenstein of the University of Illinois Chicago they testify “As for how these digital technologies have influenced student writing, our own view, based on the writing we have seen in our combined seventy years of teaching, is that that this influence is neither disastrous, as the critics fear, nor wonderfully revolutionary, as the proponents claim.” Graff and Birkenstein’s experience coincides with the concept of juvenoia which I discuss in my essay Adults These Days. In that essay I use juvenoia, the exaggerated fears over the influence of social change on the younger generations, as well as historical examples to explain that much of the worry and concern that adults have over how the internet will affect children are largely baseless. But where Graff and Birkenstein’s experience and my analysis end is where the separate but relevant conversation of how digital communication affects the way society reads begins. It seems that the quality of the arguments that students make and the ability of students to write in a professional setting are unaffected by digital technology. What is overlooked in this observation is one of the non-academic sides of writing, reading. I am of the opinion that digital technology is negatively impacting the way that society reads. Digital technologies provide quicker access to information than traditional literary forms, while also providing more stimulating and engaging receptacles of media for public consumption, ultimately forcing real and would-be writers to lessen, limit, or stop their efforts. These aspects threaten to change and possibly irreparably damage the industry of literature and creative storytelling, perhaps leading to the unraveling of a media form that has stood for thousands of years.

While a small community of readers are familiar with my work and who I am, the general reader will not. I am an engineering student who graduated High School in 2016. I have lived all my life in the digital age and like many of my coevals, members who are part of the same generation as I, am proficient in the use of the internet, social media, and other forms of digital communication. I feel it is pertinent to make the audience aware of this because I want to separate myself from the writers whose apprehension towards digital communication comes from the idea that things were better in the old days, or that because digital communication is new, that it is bad. In my paper, Adults These Days I challenge these ideas and show that fear of new technology is a practice that has been around since Ancient Sumeria (Martocello). I assert that older generations should allow the younger generations to use internet and social media to improve the world as the older generations improved their world with their technology. Although I grant that it sounds hypocritical to say that reading and writing in today’s culture is negatively affected by digital communication while having previously written a paper promoting that digital communication be given an objective chance, the issues discussed, while connected, are very different. The effects digital communication has on culture should be celebrated, studied, and most importantly not written off as the stuff of children. That does not mean the effects digital communication has on society should go unstudied. Graff and Birkenstein acknowledge that the conversation of technology’s effects will never be over. They say” Our purpose in this brief chapter is not to try to settle these debates, but to invite you to think about how digital technologies affect your work as a reader and a writer”(Graff). Graff and Birkenstein are ahead of the curve, acknowledging that there may be no right answer, choosing to believe in what their experience has taught them.

Readers of this paper will almost assuredly have at least one year of high-school experience under their belt. That being said, everyone is familiar with the assigned readings of high school. Whether it was Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Odyssey, Beloved, The Great Gatsby, or The Kite Runner, everyone has gone through the cycle of having to read at least one book in high school that they did not want to read. In that situation, you had few options, read the terrible book, or find a way around the book. Before the digital age, students would need their friends to explain the parts of the book they didn’t read or get, but now digital technology has delivered a plethora of sources that allow a reader to circumvent reading a book. SparkNotes, Cliff Notes, Wikipedia, and are essential tools to the high-school non-reader. These web services provide in-depth summary and professional analysis of nearly all the books that a student could come across in their careers. These services are very harmful, creating lazy students. If a student has the opportunity to forgo hours of reading a book, by spending fifteen minutes on Wikipedia then why bother reading the book? Some could argue that students have been avoiding reading books for all of time, nothing more than the juvenoia I discuss in Adults These Days(Martocello). The difference in the digital age is that instead of having your friends fill you in on what you did not read, students have access to thousands of high-quality summaries and analyzes that can answer the questions that their teachers just as well or even better than reading the book. This is not the function of a book. If a book was meant to be a four-page summary of events, then that would be what writers would write. But no, writers write many hundred page novels in order to open a conversation, albeit a one-way conversation, with their audience over the world that we live in. These summarizing services allow students to pass classes, but they undermine the entire reason for writing in the first place. Graff and Birkenstein support this view by saying, “After all, the internet allows us to post something and then get quick, even instantaneous responses. It also allows us more easily to access multiple perspectives on any topic and then directly insert the voices of others into our texts”(Graff). In a book the reader must invest time in order to gain knowledge, dedicate hours to decoding and understanding a complex story. This is quite the opposite of the internet where the information is there at your fingertips as fast as you can type it. This begs the question: Why should student bother reading at all when they can just find a summary of whatever they have been told to read? My time in high school showed me that every year more students are discovering the internet’s ability to circumvent reading, and every year more students stop reading.

Although more students stop reading each year, I do not want give the impression that students are not reading. A large number of students such as myself read avidly although we are in the minority. Additionally, there is a strange paradox surrounding the conversation of how digital technology affects how we read, it is what I call the John Green Trance. The John Green Trance is the occurrence of someone who never or rarely reads to find a book that they start reading and then become so engrossed with it that they read it in one day. I have been friends with no less than seven people who have picked up one of John Green’s books, The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska, or Paper Towns, who have become so engrossed in the book that couldn’t put it down. These readers are the exact same readers that use SparkNotes to get through the tests in English class. This phenomenon is not at all limited to John Green’s work, however the majority of books that are subject to this marathon of reading in my experience tend to be books by John Green. So why would someone who goes out of their way to not read all of a sudden become a super-reader? Graff and Birkenstein would likely say that it is because reading an entire book in such a short period of time provides the reading with that instant gratification that they are accustomed to getting from digital technology and social media. Naomi Baron of American University corroborates this idea in her paper Instant Messaging and the Future of Language, “Adolescents have long been a source of linguistic and behavioral novelty. Teens often use spoken language to express small group identity It is hardly surprising to find many of them experiment with a new linguistic medium to complement the identity construction they achieve through speech, clothing, hair or style.” This new style of reading that the younger generations are developing may be a piece of culture that the digital age has brought to us. In Adults These Days I say “Each generation adapts to the new circumstances around it, and because each generation faces new challenges, they must new ways to do things” (Martocello). This style of reading is somewhat akin to new television and media practice of binge-watching a TV show, wherein a viewer continuously watches a large volume media nonstop. In this respect the John Green Trance could be likened to “binge reading.” However, television and literature are two very different things. Television uses audio and visual stimuli in order to support the written script, while literature uses solely words, relying on the reader to create their own interpretation of the story without the help of their senses using their experience to build the story. I would argue that reading is more difficult than watching television or movies because it is such a personal and mentally intensive process. While a viewer can more or less watch the movie or television show move by them because of the visual and audio aspects of it, reading ends as soon as you take your eyes off the page. When one reads, time must be taken in order to understand the words and the delicate twists and turns that the author weaves into his or her writing. Going three months without reading a book, then reading one book for an entire day, then going back to not reading for another two months is analogous to going to the gym once every three months. You work hard and exert yourself a great deal at the gym that day, but unless you follow that work-out with other sessions no muscle can be built and no progress can be made. The brain functions in a similar way to your muscles, it must be used and exercised or else it will become weak.  Only using the part of your brain dedicated to reading once every several months leads to a weak and exercised reader whose ability to read doesn’t increase with every story they consume. Binge reading is a product of binge watching, a facet of the digital age that we live in. If the trend in society continues on in this manner, then readers will become much more accustomed to books that they can consume in these binge-times. And if that were the case, in order to produce content that readers would read writers would be required to write in order to suit this change.

For much of my life I have wanted to be a fiction writer, I was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of John Carter of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes, to add the world of Science Fiction. But whenever my parents asked me what I wanted to do with my life I never said that I wanted to be a writer. Why? Because being a professional writer doesn’t pay unless you’re George R.R. Martin, or J.K. Rowling. Instead, I chose a career path where I could make money and stay employed, civil engineering. For three years in high school I convinced myself that there was no point in being a writer, because no one reads any more. Those thoughts were the primary reasons why I never pursued writing seriously for a long time. Eventually, I realized that I was passionate about writing and that I wanted to write whether or not any one read my work. And so, I began writing. I consider myself in the minority of creative young-people in the respect that I avidly read and write. But because of stigmas such as no one reads any more, no one has time to read anymore, the only reason to write is to get a movie made from your book, and that the only rich authors are the authors who have movies made from their books, turn many young writers away from a creative outlet that has so many benefits and so few downsides. Because of the movie and film’s industry tendency to take novels across genres and turn them into movies it changes the idea of what a successful writer is. Online journal The Harvard Crimson reviewed the paper Novel into Film: A Critical Study by George Bluestone of John’s Hopkins University, wherein he discovered that over fifty percent of movies and screen plays are based off movies (Bunker). Because people are writing and reading less it is much harder to make a true profit from a book or piece of writing. It could be argued that the only rich authors are one’s who have movies adapted from their books, begging the question: Is a successful writer a person who can bend a reader’s soul with their words, or just a glorified screenwriter? These questions still plague me. The line of work I so desperately want to be a part of is disappear before my feet, and I blame digital technology for destroying the conversations that I will never be able to enter.

The world is most likely not as bleak as I purport it to be, nonetheless, the likelihood for a writer to be able to stand as just a writer without the aid of the film industry is very slim. My experience has shown me that there are less readers out in the world, when forced to read through academia, digital-age technology allows an easy escape from the work. Even those who do read simply for pleasure read similarly to how they consume digital media, in large bursts, which is not how literature is meant to be consumed. These trends are negatively affecting how society is reading. There are those in academia such a Baron who agree with me, and there are certainly others who disagree, still there are others like Graff and Birkenstien who maintain that there is no real effect. We are too early in the digital age to draw accurate conclusions on how reading will ultimately be affected, and all that those who wish to analyze these effects can do it look to his or her personal experience. While I wish that every person could share my passion for literature, that will never happen, but what I hope that this paper can serve to do is cause the reader to take a second look and reconsider how the digital age has effected the way that they have read.