Literacy crisis or sign of the times?

For those that don’t know already, I work in a library here in Velcro City…

I am lucky. I can quite truthfully say that I have the privilege to do a job I actually give a damn about. It’s not great pay, and sometimes the day to day barrage of idiocy that working with the public can produce can wear you out. But ultimately, I like my job, because I love books. Book junkie. Fix me up with a big fat syringe full of books, yes sir. My mum got me reading early, and I’ve always viewed it as the most entertaining things one can do on one’s own. (Well, apart from *that*, of course, but you can’t do that all day.) I can’t imagine a world without books. It would be, for me, a dark and hollow place.

Figures from the City Council put the region’s illiteracy rate at 17%. That’s nearly a fifth of the population unable to write a simple letter, or read a newspaper. Falling standards in literacy and numeracy have been a tabloid favourite for some time now, and a ‘New’ Labour bogeyman used to hustle in numerous dubious projects to reverse the trend. The evidence is clear; having had the privilege of private schooling, I am frequently stunned by literacy levels in people from many walks of life. But among the young, reading is considered by most to be a dead thing, antiquated, ‘so-last-century’.

Horrible thought to me at least. But maybe in today’s media saturated world, reading will become increasingly un-necessary and arcane, a relic of how we did things before we had machines to help us think. Maybe we’re headed to a truly ‘wired’ future, where everyone can be linked up with full-bandwidth sensation from any other person just by thinking it. I’ll admit, books will seem a little dated and cumbersome then, and as an ultimate aim for humanity, I can think of far worse.

But I believe that the primacy of television as the main supply of indoor entertainment during childhood prevents the strengthening of the imagination that reading can provide. And a strong imagination punches at least the same weight as a strong intellect on the shop floor, regardless of what the exam certificates say; an imaginative person can think his/her way out of a jam more quickly, can react to changes in situations more effectively, because he/she can make mistakes in their head before trying the moves in the real world.

But maybe I’m wrong. Those who know me know what a Luddite I can be about some things, television being a personal pet hate. And the universe knows I have some pretty odd notions about certain philosophical and eschatological questions. Maybe I’m also a relic of the New Era, a neanderthal lost in his out-of-date ritual ways, while around him the new breed run and speak and plot…maybe they won’t need books anymore; factor in online libraries, like the one being planned by Google among others, and access to cheap and effective voice synth code, and the written word would become as obscure and elitist as computer machine code is now.

For my part, I think it would be a shame. I get so much joy out of reading that I would rather sacrifice my hearing, and run the risk of never being able to hear voices or music or nature again, rather than lose my sight and be unable to read for myself. When I’m old, I guess the local cyberkids’ll throw stuff at my house, that crazy old git with his ‘books’. I’ll laugh then, having read about it happening many years before, in an old novel…wait a second, I’ve got it here somewhere…

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