Printosaurus

There’s a funny and insightful piece from Leah McLaren at the Globe and Mail about being out of step with the times as a thirty something who still reads the newspaper. The occasion for her fretting is a recent piece in the New Yorker on the end of newspapers. An excerpt from McLaren’s ruminations on being an anachronism.

There’s nothing left to do but give up and donate myself to the Newseum of printPrintosaurus journalism, which is about to reopen in multimillion-dollar digs in Washington. They can encase me in glass, under a plaque that reads Female Printosaurus Rex, last known example of the now-extinct species: newspaper columnist.

But maybe the situation is not quite so bad. After all, it seems a bit ironic that all this agonizing about the death of our literary culture has occurred in the pages of newspapers, books and magazines. As Ursula Le Guin pointed out in her Harper’s rebuttal to the New Yorker piece, the haute bourgeoisie (also affectionately known, in Web generation parlance, as “white people”) have always revelled smugly in the knowledge that only an anointed minority enjoyed the same privileges they did. In fact, the only thing educated upper-middle-class white people seem to enjoy more than reading books and newspapers is discussing the fact that no one else but them appears to enjoy reading books and newspapers.

Well, I have to say that I take some comfort in the fact that being a paper junkie still links me to other generations. And in observing my kids, it seems to me that things are really not so absolutely definitive as technophobes or digital utopians would have it. To some degree this kind of either/or–either everyone will give up paper or everyone will eventually recognize that digital texts are a waste of good silicon–is a little like what passes for debate on Fox News. Get the most extreme positions imaginable since people seem to like conflicts between clearly defined goods and evils.

Still, my son, 13, gets up every morning and reads the sports page. He even goes out in the morning and gets the paper if his trusty dog…er, I mean his parents…haven’t brought it in yet. He also reads an extraordinary amount of old fashioned books, wedging it in around the extraordinary amount of time he spends skateboarding and watching YouTube videos. My daughter facebooks more than I care for her to, but she also reads quite a bit and enjoys good old fashioned books.

In some ways my kids are unusual, but they aren’t unique. I suspect that books–even good old fashioned print books– are going to end up somewhere on a continuum of entertainment and educational choices. No longer dominant but still important. Same for newspapers. Just as television didn’t bring movies to and end, and movies didn’t bring novels to an end. More a menu of choices rather than stark divisions.

I am interested in McLaren’s take on Ursula Le Guin. It does seem to me that the readers of “serious” fiction, alongside “serious” readers of fiction–two groups that are by no means coextensive–have always been an influential minority. Maybe what’s at stake in a reading crisis, then, is not so much the sense that no one will read books anymore, but that books are losing the aura of necessity. Even if serious reading has always been the province of a minority, book readers have had the pleasure of social prestige. People always felt like they should read more even if they didn’t. Now, however, that perception has passed.

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