Books RIP

Posted April 16, 2010

Books RIP

“Books are gone; there won’t be any books in ten years time”. So says my 13 year old niece.

We’d been chatting around the dinner table – her mum, my husband and me – about good books we’d recently read, the type that you just have to finish in one sitting. I didn’t think my niece was following the conversation until she suddenly piped up with her apocalyptic vision of the future. Apparently, reading a book is “sooo boring” and a waste of her time. She would much rather be “doing something”.

I could understand her desire to be active as she is a very athletic teenager and excels at sports. But she is also top of her class academically so this disdain for books came as a real shock to me. I asked her if she had a reading list in school. She said not really, that there was maybe one book on a list but most of the time they learnt through group discussions in class. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised.

She is, after all, of the generation that prefers to read in bite size chunks and looks to the internet for instant answers. But I do wonder how information will be passed on or, indeed, checked in the future. If knowledge is distilled by word of mouth alone then surely there is a strong chance that it will be distorted somewhere along the line. Is this the start of education by Chinese whispers?

Yet maybe I’m fretting needlessly. Schools are instructing pupils from a very young age not to rely on Wikipedia for facts. Our universities warn students about the dangers of plagiarism and taking what they read on the internet at face value. They encourage them to research well and question what they read. I don’t recall such an emphasis on this when I was at university. You believed what was in your text book and trusted the lecturers to be the font of all knowledge.

So perhaps learning by open discussion will produce a new generation that is confident about challenging the status quo, one that will think for itself rather than follow the herd. If it means we are less likely to be hoodwinked by politicians, bankers and the like, then this will be a change for the better.

I do think that this generation has a built-in ‘bullshit’ radar. I’m already seeing evidence of this with my niece. For example, she was flicking through a magazine the other day (apparently magazines will still be around in the new world model) and stopped at a picture of a highly airbrushed model. She held the picture up to me, rolled her eyes and said sarcastically, “Yeh, right - I don’t think so!” Maybe the fact that she has grown up with all the modern technology at her fingertips enables her to easily sift through an information overload and identify what is real. It’s second nature to her.

But getting back to our original discussion around the dinner table – what about reading as a leisure pastime? Will this really come to an end? I hope not because the thought of no longer being able to lose ourselves in a good novel for hours on end fills me with genuine sadness.

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