Monday, January 25, 2010

Death of the Descriptive Paragraph

or: Proof I'm Not Always on Technology's Side

A Los Angeles Times opinion article by Daniel Akst this morning gave me a perfect way and reason to express that I do, in fact, have a head of reason on my shoulders. 

A lot of teachers believe that the young guy down the hall who's always preaching that they've got to jump on to the tech bandwagon is a poster child for what is wrong with the kids these days. "All that stuff is just toys that 'real'  teachers don't even need," "Where's penmanship, what happened to good old letter writing, that's what I want to know," they say. "Nobody can read a book any more because they won't sit down, they'd rather watch a video to learn something," and, "Editing a video is NOT writing." Now, while I have pretty sound arguments against some of the statements, or at least arguments of why they are not such bad things, I do try to come about the topics from a blank slate angle. I try to weigh where our society and method of communication is headed with the skills that are truly needed to succeed in our society. 

So our communication methods are evolving... I've said that, I know, I know. I see that most of this is fine, and as long as we embrace it in education, we will advance our society exponentially. If we don't, we will continue to widen the divide in entertainment and education, and where do you think your students will go during "homework time"? Think about it, our society fell in love with reading because it was our escape. It used to be the only form of entertainment - aside from telling stories. And education matched what entertainment was (storytelling = lectures, and reading). In the early days of radio and TV, books were not only on par with mass communication, I'd argue they were still ahead as TV and radio were used more for spreading information and the entertainment aspects were looked at as toys. We were a culture of readers still. Until very recently, it was still commonplace to hear the phrase about retirement as "getting away and sitting down to finally write that 'great American novel'". 

You don't hear that any more but you do see more and more people with that dream of writing the great American screenplay. Which is a different skill all together. It is merely a blueprint for visuals where the very best writers use the very least amount of ink per page.

We've already seen a major shift in reading habits. And publishing companies are starting to die out. People are self publishing on Amazon and actually making money off of it. And here I am preaching that it should be a top ten priority as an educator to STOP buying TEXTBOOKS!!!

So now Apple unveils a digital book reader. It's a couple years behind Amazon's Kindle and Sony's PRS700 (great name by the way Sony... genius marketing there). But that's how Apple does it. They actually test their product.  They actually pay attention to its marketing. Then they go out and make you think you have to have one. Bottom line: this will kick start the digital book revolution. And I'm frowning.

You see, this will shut down bookstores, force libraries to rethink what they house to justify tax dollars their way, the Dewey Decimal System will be yanked off its life support. That doesn't bother me. But what Akst does go on to mention, does bother me. More and more people may start reading again, but he argues that the nature of the novel and writing will change to match the medium. Just like how the average length and depth of books have gradually diminished to meet demands of our shrinking attention span (I mean did you read the "literary masterpiece" that was the Di Vinci Code? You could smell his brown nose to the movie companies - it was practically an outline).

But when people begin to read on an Apple Tablet (meaning it's a small computer) they may be able to access every document ever inked to paper, but do you think they would read the entire "Old" book when they could stream the movie from YouTube? It's true I believe this could rekindle a love of reading (pun intended) and people will eventually go back to the classics to see what they are all about, but I think they might also skim summaries and reviews first to see if it's worth their time, then maybe skip to cliff notes online.

The new literature will become shorter to meet the demands of the market. And with plenty of - what he mentions - self publishers and no editors, what kind of literature will we be subjected to? I believe we are stepping into the zone of fast-food literature. McDonald's can feed the world, it can also make an entire country addicted to sugar and kill them with obesity.

What's more disturbing to me is that I'm a huge proponent of the idea that editing video is a higher form of writing. It takes more levels of processing to communicate an idea. And here, Daniel Akst mentions the very real probability of books now being accompanied by visuals, more pictures, some videos, and especially sound. Though I believe the novelist will necessarily have to plan and process more in order to successfully weave these mediums together, this will take away from the invoked imagination of the reader. A GREAT thing if we are teaching a skill - a horrible thing for reaching into ourselves for our own imagination. I also have a theory that reading a good novel is another processing skill that grows our mind. It engages the images we have already to match to someone else's words. This allows us to process our own thoughts, images, and emotions more purely as our own. Watching a movie or TV allows it to all be done for us, we are told what to see and how to see it. And more importantly for us as a people, HOW and WHAT to FEEL. We rarely deal with our own emotions in a movie, novels take us deeper and invoke all of our own senses on top of the character.

Again, this is good in education, it conveys the message more clearly for all types of learners. But it's a little sad to wonder, "Is this what our society will call reading two more generations removed?"

Remember how books would spend two pages describing a glass of wine? And look at the future by reading Dan Brown's Di Vinci Code. He's at his most "novelstic" when he very mechanically describes the ratios of subjects in paintings.

On a tablet reader he wouldn't have bothered. He would have just showed a picture and used digital ink to mark over the lines and point to objects in the paintings. Is the future of literature a digital comic book? Where the use of the written word is the novelty?

The descriptive paragraph is an essential tool to build brain processing power (I'm still not saying it's as good at communicating a message as a a picture or video is - but essential for brain exercising for it self). A picture is worth a thousand words - that's a thousand words a writer doesn't have to bother with. Good in moving education, in evolving our society, scary for art. The descriptive paragraph is not marketable because we have visuals to do the same in less time and that communicate more and get us to the point of the message faster. This is why one of the first rules of writing a screenplay is "avoid all narration", it's visually on the screen and nobody needs it described to them. The descriptive paragraph may indeed, be dieing with the paper it's inked on.

For more on Apple's Tablet from Daniel Akst's LA Times article, go here:,0,3445923.story

No comments:

Post a Comment