William Paulson’s Literary Culture in a World Transformed, which I mentioned in an earlier post, is an extraordinarily stimulating book, descriptive in its first two-thirds and prescriptive in its final third. Its first part relies to a great extent on French theory, which is understandable since Paulson is a Professor of French and the French are formidable describers of the structure of open systems. The prescriptive part is more tenuous and limited to higher education. When read in conjunction with James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Education and Literacy, one can see that the length and breadth of literary reading must begin at an early age, as reading specialists have always told us and which I infer from Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. If, as Wolf suggests, early interaction with literary texts changes the brain’s physicality, does that neural condition create a desire to read, the way changed brain chemistry can create drug addiction? Or as I get from Gee, do video games create an interaction with semiotic systems that make it easy or even pleasurable to read certain types of literature to which we don’t expose young people in institutional settings? In other words, is literary reading addictive? Would a thirteen-year-old video game aficionado, because of the structure of his or her daily activity, respond better to a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. or Thomas Pynchon (leaving difficulties of language aside for the moment) than to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which an eighth grader is so often required to read? I understand the many pressures on teachers to assign books that will allow them to explain how novels are structured, but to deny that the pervasiveness of technology has changed the way young people read and learn is to play the ostrich. To insist that they follow the curriculum in place for at least four decades is to convince young readers to despise printed books.
If literary reading is on the decline, one way to stem that decline is to create a holistic approach along a spectrum of age-appropriate activities and to allow flexibility, which the balkanized literary culture will most likely not be able to do because of varied cultural, political, and social ideologies that have very little to do with inculcating a love of reading. If we leave the creation of readers to ideologues—and I use that word in its broadest sense—as we have done for decades, we will end up as a nation of non-readers. And I am not only talking about the easy-to-predict failure of Reading First and No Child Left Behind, but the results of the actions of boards of education, curriculum developers, parents, and even book salespeople.