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The Reading Ban (Part One)

January 4, 2013

The Reading Ban

[Excerpts from a government report, translated from the densely academic prose which, ironically, argues more eloquently for a ban on reading than anything actually contained in the actual report:]

“We are entering the post literate age. Thanks to the latest G technology, useful information and key messages can be accessed through the touch of a button in the blink of an eye. People don’t have time to read nowadays; lots of people never did. Today one can easily perform many useful functions simultaneously and, while the reading of printed matter was once seen as an admirable symptom of aspiration and intellectual hunger, when we see someone reading nowadays it strikes us as suspicious and offensive. If something is worth reading why not share it on social media? Why keep it to yourself? …

“For a couple of thousand years reading was at the very cutting edge of information technology; the book was considered to be the ideal information storage device. However as the years have gone by later technologies and systems have emerged to offer exciting new ways to summarize, conserve and above all share information in an ever expanding, ever more exciting variety of media – pictures that can be given movement, colour and sound, entire 3D, virtual and/or informational universes!…

“A great weight of historical, anecdotal and scientific evidence has made it ever more apparent that books and reading may in fact be extremely harmful to human individuals, groups and societies. For individuals, reading to excess can be bad for the heart, sight and liver, can cause lethargy, sloth and a general deterioration of the physical body, while struggling to unify the conflicting “messages” contained in a variety of texts inevitably causes mental stress, without the relief of interactive, shareable activities offered by more modern media. Variations in taste, belief systems or access to written materials can lead to conflict, causing certain groups to become fragmented, alienated from the bigger society, or to set themselves apart from fellow citizens in unhelpful ways, imagining themselves to be “above” the wider culture. And we are all too familiar with the devastating effect the grasp of an individual text may have on an entire national culture and/or society. That seems to be the basis of most conflicts between nations, as well as fomenting so much crime and discontent within them…

“Where cultural, political and economic leaders were once confined to calling a spade a spade, now they can share the actual experience of being or at least of using a spade, and so avoid a good many of the ambiguities and arguments that inevitably arise in a culture that depends on everyone being, often quite literally, “on the same page”. So training needs of all sorts can be met with more quickly, with much less demanding study methods, perhaps none. Without being tied to the written word, contracts, legislation and laws can be created almost instantly, with more instantaneous, less ambiguous means of enforcement…

“Page sniffers, book collectors and nostalgic fetishists of all sorts try to keep the cult of the printed book going, but they are swimming against the tide and it seems increasingly inevitable that socially, ecologically and above all economically, the printed book and indeed the act of reading itself has served its purpose…

“There is an opportunity here to bring our nation back to the forefront of the global social and economic paradigm by eliminating the cumbersome and expensive machinery of the printed word and replacing it with more satisfactory modern technologies. The book must of course be tolerated during this interim period, for the sake of those unwilling or unable to adapt to this necessary development of our culture, the acceptance of which can be encouraged by carefully monitored social experiments designed to demonstrate the fact that “reading” in its original sense is no longer necessary…

Our people, and especially our young people, need to be encouraged to think and express themselves in ways that suit a modern, forward looking society, so that their intellectual life can easily be shared with others, valued and translated into economically viable units of activity… ”

It seems a stupid idea now, and always did to some of us, but the ban on reading followed the usual path to popular acceptance.

The report quoted from above was at first greeted by a “storm of protest” in the media, with headlines such as “Now the government wants to ban reading!” and campaigns to “Save our printed heritage”.

Government figures fielded these with their usual wealth of urbane explanations and emotive appeals to “fair play” and “efficiency” and soon found that the greater public had persuaded itself that it was its idea that reading was to blame for all of society’s ills and divisions. The suggestion that the eradication of reading should be tried out as “a pioneering experiment” was greeted with predictable cries of “about time!” and “we want reading banned right here right now”, and so the scene was set for the first step to be taken towards “ending the curse of the printed word”.

Fears that the academic establishment might put up some resistance proved groundless. Teachers love new ways of doing things, especially if they might make their job easier and the learning process seem less onerous or challenging to students, and soon they were fighting each other for the honour (and extra funding from central government) that would come from being among the first to jump aboard this latest bandwagon.

The opposition did make a half hearted attempt to be different, of course. Don’t be so radical, they said, it could lead to chaos, why not just start by banning poetry? The government side correctly argued that this would have too little impact and continued on its merry way, happily riding on a rare crest of public support for this latest of innumerable such notions, hatred of “the reading classes”, the latest bogey they had managed to create.

Some civil servant with a sense of humour selected a school in Reading to be the first “Non Reading Academy” and all the nation looked on with bated breath, hoping and praying that this would lead to an easier life for all.

Students rushed in on the first day full of hope, now that their boringly typical state secondary school had been re-branded as the world’s first Non Reading Academy. Several had to be turned away at once, as they arrived thinking that “Non Reading” meant no uniform. The rest had to wait for some time, as their teachers were still thrashing out the details in an unusually heated Staff Meeting.

The Deputy Head struggled to explain the various systems he had devised “in his own spare time” for replacing traditional methods of communication. These included a huge list of numeric codes for subjects and schemes of learning, swipe-able icons and new software programmes and downloadable videos supplied by private educational companies, charities and corporations.

“It may seem complicated at first,” he said encouragingly, “But once you get the hang of it I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how easily the work will proceed under our new system.”

The staff exchanged nervous or cynical glances as was their wont, before sinking their teeth into a long discussion on how mobile phones should be treated, something most of them did care about passionately. Banned in many traditional classrooms, they were now an essential learning tool for students swiping their way from one topic to the next, but what about texting?

Finally it was agreed that texts did not usually count as proper writing and so could be read within reason and without teachers giving any hint of official approval for a medium which, if left uncontrolled, might “let reading in by the back door”.

Then there was a particularly spirited fight for the shiny new resources on offer, the Head of IT assured the staff that all new software would be “up and running” by the end of the day, the Head of the school promised her full hearted support and, ready at last, the staff proceeded to their classrooms, happily noting that there was only ten minutes left before morning break.

Naturally there were a few unexpected teething problems. It had been assumed that every kid has a mobile phone these days but a surprising number didn’t, and several who did had the wrong kind of phone, which could not cope with the demands now being made of it. Dear old Jones of the Geography Department made the mistake of lending his phone to one deserving seeming pupil, and by the end of the day her discovery and “sharing” of certain indiscreet picture messages had put his career in jeopardy.

Those students who had thrived under the old literary culture now found themselves at a disadvantage, under pressure to “perform” in strange new ways without the support of a textbook from which they could indulge in the now heartily discouraged habit of “writing notes”.

Many learning activities were presented as “games” and certain students, previously regarded as untalented at best and more usually as disruptive, found their talent for quick thinking and fast talking and in some cases their ability to “lead the class” being appreciated and utilized for the first time. This did result in some truly inspiring lessons, to which the Head, with her finely honed instincts for self promotion, would smoothly steer important visitors. However, she also had to do her best to prevent them wandering into classrooms where confused staff and incompletely installed software enabled students to create “educational games” of their own, rather different to the ones intended. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that more than one teacher should, in the midst of many chaotic scenes that historic day, for various reasons of their own, end up muttering to him or herself, “I knew it would turn out like this; good thing too!”

[Concluded next week]


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