Growing up, I was the kid who skipped lunch to curl up with a book in a hidden corner of the school library. It wasn’t that I didn’t like people—I just liked books more.
My love of reading started early in childhood. Each morning in the summer, when there was little more to do than laze around in the sunshine, my mom would take me and my sisters to the library by our house. After we had completed the work she assigned us, we were free to wander the shelves, spending the rest of our time exploring whichever books caught our interest.
I can still remember the way the four of us would scatter to our designated nooks, and, settling in next to teetering piles, would escape into paper-bound worlds. We would remain engrossed for hours: climbing into castles in attics and encountering lands in the woods; discovering magical schools far-away and mysterious neighbors next-door; making (and losing) friends, facing (and defeating) enemies; and embarking on the kinds of adventure which can only be found when everything else fades into the background, and all that remains is you and the page.
Lunchtime would bring us back.
Emerging from our rapture, closing the cover, taking in the final inhale of library-book scent, we would gather our things and (reluctantly) venture back into our lives: children made wiser by the perspectives unveiled to our eyes, and forever altered by the stories imprinted on our hearts.
Stepping out of the cool air-condition into the sticky summer heat, our arms would be heavy and our hearts would be light: each filled to the brim with the power of words—that indescribable ecstasy of ink-printed stardust, that inextricable sense of magic.
Eighty percent of all learning occurs through our eyes. Because of this, one of the first questions I ask children during their eye exams is: “Do you like to read?” If the answer is an emphatic “No”—it is often a good indication to probe for visual symptoms which might be preventing them from enjoying sustained visual tasks.
Recently, however, I have noticed a disheartening trend where, more often than not, kids say they don’t like to read—not because of a visual problem, but because…that’s just it: they don’t like to read.
In a world where imagery is king, the idea of picking up a yellowed paperback and exchanging a medium which produces enjoyment without effort for one which requires effort to enjoy is one that is, for most kids, far from enticing. And the way our culture has progressed, who can blame them? Even as adults, the choice between a story-by-image and a story-by-page at the end of a long day is often a no-brainer (hello, Netflix). But it’s a choice I think we would do well to reflect on.
What are we losing as adults, and what are we depriving from our children, when we choose a passive medium (which asks for little to no input from our wonderfully clever brains) over one which, in every sentence and word, asks for our active participation, contemplation, and analysis?
One day, while spending the afternoon whiling away the hours at the New York Public Library, I came across a book which would completely shift the way I saw the image-centric world I had become accustomed to in comparison to the word-centric world I had grown up in. From the moment I turned the first page, I read ravenously, sneaking snippets in any spare moment my schedule would allow—morning subway rides, between classes, and on various benches in various parks during my lunch hour.
I dog-eared (gasp!) so many pages which had passages I wanted to remember, that instead of returning it, I eventually decided to buy the book from the library (much to the chagrin of the librarian). That book was Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman.
It is a book of social commentary written in 1985 “about how TV is turning all public life (education, religion, politics, journalism) into entertainment [and] how the image is undermining other forms of communication, especially the written word”—yet it was unbelievably relevant to the very day I read it. I have yet to come across another book which has articulated the state of our culture so accurately:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. […] In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
[…] For America is engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug. This is an experiment that began slowly and modestly in the mid-nineteenth century and has now, in the latter half of the twentieth, reached a perverse maturity in America’s consuming love-affair with television [read: social media/phone/iPad]. As nowhere else in the world, Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, and have granted to television sovereignty over all of their institutions. By ushering in the Age of Television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future.
Those who speak about this matter must often raise their voices to a near-hysterical pitch, inviting the charge that they are everything from wimps to public nuisances to Jeremiahs. But they do so because what they want others to see appears benign, when it is not invisible altogether. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us. […] We take arms against such a sea of troubles […] But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?”
When I finished reading, I suddenly remembered a poem I had come across growing up—one which had fallen away into the recesses of my mind, but which I now realized was far too important to forget:
“Television,” by Roald Dahl
The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set—
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink—
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK—HE ONLY SEES!
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY … USED … TO … READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and—
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole—
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks—
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start—oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.