Monday 6 October 2008

The Great Literacy Debate: What is the Future of Reading?

The New York Times is running a series debating the future of reading.

In July, the NY Times wondered if the new realities of the web signaled a change to reading habits:

As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires a teenager like Nadia, who might otherwise spend most of her leisure time watching television, to read and write.

There was a video interviewing a family in which reading habits fall along a generational divide.

Screenshot of NY Times Video
Click on the screenshot or here to view the NY Times video.

Today, the NY Times series focuses on video games as a way to get children reading. According to the article, a recent poll by the Pew Internet & American Life project found that 97 percent of children 12 to 17 play games on computers, consoles and handheld devices.

Apparently, librarians in the States are using games to bring teenagers into their libraries.

Inspired in part by such theories, librarians now stage tournaments for teenagers with games like Super Smash Brothers Brawl and Dance Dance Revolution. In the first half of this year, the New York Public Library hosted more than 500 events, drawing nearly 8,300 teenagers. In Columbus, Ohio, nearly 5,500 youngsters have participated in more than 300 tournaments at the public library this year.

“I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘What exactly is reading?’ ” said Jack Martin, assistant director for young adult programs at the New York Public Library. “Reading is no longer just in the traditional sense of reading words in English or another language on a paper.”

In the UK, I hear that the super duper Jubilee library in Brighton holds Playstation tournaments!

Scholastic, the American publisher of Harry Potter has already published The Maze of Bones, the first of a series tied to a web-based game. Ricky Riordan (Lightning Thief) wrote The Maze of Bones and has outlined the story arc for the rest of the series.
“My main concern was crafting an adventure novel that would stand on its own, even if kids never access the Internet at all,” Mr. Riordan said.

During the brainstorming phase and after he wrote a manuscript, Mr. Riordan worked with editors at Scholastic, who suggested details that could be worked into the novel so that they could also be used in the game.

“There’s a lot of commonality between what makes a good game and a good book,” Mr. Riordan said. “Whether you’re a gamer or a reader, you want to feel immersed in the story and invested in the action and the characters, and you want to care about the outcome and you want to participate in solving the mystery.”

More about the Maze of Bones (The 39 Clues series) here.

Many authors, I imagine will throw their hands up in despair at this new turn of events.

But if you really think hard about it, what lies at the heart of this new movement is a love of Story.

And Story is something we authors can always work with. It's just a question of how.


  1. Cor! I taught a year 9 class acouple of years ago and the scheme of work was creative writing. I allowed some of those kids to 'write' the story of a computer game! I'm just so 'up there...with the thingies...y'know...' Actually it does seem a shame if kids are missing out on curling up with a good book. But then I am an old fart at heart!

  2. you are definitely up there .. if this is the way things are going, i've got to advance beyond Age of Empires to online fantasy games! but there is no time.

  3. I don't know. It's not reading though, is it? For me, the thing about a good book, and this applied when I was a child, is that you step out of the real world and enter someone else's world. Of course this applied to gaming-style books, but what about slowing the pace? What about reading as a way of learning about another culture, another way of life, another era? These poor kids spent their lives, either on screen or now on paper, hurtling along. For me, that's not reading, it's adrenaline rush.

  4. I posted a link to wordpool this morning about the same thing - evidently it's very much a question doing the rounds at the moment.
    I think your point about Story is key - it doesn't have to be a book - as a child I didn't have many books (my parents weren't "bookish") but I had a granny who used to tell me stories - about her life - and it was from that that my own love of story grew.
    When I write a new manuscript, I'm usually at the same time visualising it as a movie - I can't seem to quite separate the two means of storytelling in my head - and perhaps this what we all need to do - to see our stories in different guises.
    And I suppose the question we have to ask, as writers, is what's more important, the means or the end.

  5. as jon said earlier, what this demands of us writers is to be incredibly clever (as opposed to be old farts) ... somehow TRICK the kids into thinking they are playing when they are actually reading!


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