Have you read the short story The Veldt by Ray Bradbury?
A mother and father want their children to be happy. So they give them a nursery.
The nursery is made up of screens. In these screens, the children can explore and create the world around them, without ever leaving the house. The screens manifest the will of the children.
When the children become disobedient, the parents decide to unplug. The kids don’t approve.
It doesn’t end well for Mom and Dad.
The Veldt was a shudder-worthy read in 1950. In 2014, it’s downright blood-chilling.
I can’t think about the page and the screen without dragging Bradbury out and propping him in the corner. He’s the Grand Poombah of this discussion.
Like many great Sci-Fi writers, Bradbury had a love/hate relationship with technology. He adored movies. He wrote for movies and television. But in his work, screens are universally regarded with a Luddite’s foreboding.
Because, while Bradbury revered movies, the written word was sacred.
This isn’t a concept unique to Bradbury. It’s the cultural vestige of the era when books, by their rarity, really were sacred objects.
For a hundred years, the screen borrowed gravitas from books by paying homage to the page narrative. How many early Disney films start with a storybook flipping open?
Seeing the movie was a lesser form of experiencing narrative. Reading the book represented the true narrative experience. The real story.
That model has changed.
The book as a sacred fetish reached its extinction-burst in the late-80s/early-90s, which swarmed with movies (particularly for children) where the book was revered: The Never-Ending Story. The Princess Bride. The Labyrinth. Beauty and the Beast.
But to children now, screen narrative is just as valid as page narrative.
For those of us raised on page narrative, the new primacy of screen narrative can be uncomfortable. I still read the books to my daughters before we watch the movie. I’m a bibliophile who wants to raise bibliophiles.
But I feel like Tevya.
There is still plenty of reading going on, both on page and screen. Though an alarming portion of it is cross-marketed, franchise adver-tainment.
I’ve had moments when my chosen creative activity feels as quaint and useless as calligraphy or collecting muzzle-loading muskets.
But I’m not worried about our cultural unbooking. I don’t believe that all people should be readers. I don’t believe people should be shamed for not being readers.
Yes, everyone should learn to read and have access to books, etc.
But when I hear a statistic that, for example, the average high school student graduates and never gives another thought to F. Scott Fitzgerald, that’s a-okay by me. I don’t give a shit about racquetball. I can’t imagine living in a world where everyone thought I should, no matter how edifying racquetball might be.
The reason I don’t care if Americans read for fun is twofold:
First, all humans, whether they read or not, and regardless of any other factor in their lives have a deep, profound, and unswerving need for stories.
Stories are meaning. They are morality. They are the religion of common human experience. Where and how my fellow Americans get their narrative gratification is no more my business than where or how they get their sexual gratification. To each his own.
Second, American culture is rife with excellent narrative, some of it occurring in the most unliterary of places. Graphic novels, fanfic, movies, or even – gasp! – television. Serious narrative is alive and well in the oral tradition from whence it sprung.
More power to it. The oral tradition has a history backing it that the novel, at its peak, could never have hoped to rival in the long run.
Step back a few miles. Examine the book from a distance.
For most of human history, most people didn’t or couldn’t read. But narrative flourished. Plays. Poetry. Stories. Songs.
Language is fluid. Narrative is fluid.
The idea that a story has one right iteration that should be made static and preserved for all time is only a few hundred years old.
In the scope of human history, our concept of page-narrative is the aberration. Not the norm.
Yet books have always thrived. They have always been birthed by book-lovers into the hands of book-lovers.
The book has slipped from its temporary throne to retake its place among the many and varied forms of narrative.
We can mourn or we can teach our children to seek out stories that are moral and meaningful, no matter what the medium.
We stand as parents in the Veldt. Uncertain what monsters our children might create with the technology we’ve given them.
We are fearful their stories will dismember our gods. Rest assured they will. Good narrative always does.