Adrian Monck points out the “magnificent writing” of Doris Lessing in accepting the Nobel Prize. Reading her speech at the Guardian: A hunger for books, as well as the use of language, there is a reasoned point being made.
But her argument in favour of books over the internet ignores the benefits of reading regardless of the source. One of the great things about online is that there is free access to books via a computer regardless of where you are in the world (provided of course that you have access). Google offers up samples or whole books that would probably never have their dusty covers opened in a physical library.
Lessing is right that the invention of print changed humankind, opening up knowledge of the world. But not all that has been printed is good – there are many inanities in books, magazines, newsprint; such things are not the preserve of the internet.
Reading is essential to education – and I was delighted to see empty shelves in the library at Bournemouth University yesterday (even though it meant the text I was looking for was already taken). The motivation for reading might be completion of assignments to imminent deadlines rather than education itself – but the students are continuing to read and expand their minds.
In addition, students can access journals and ebooks online – making it more likely they will read widely when directed by their tutors. They can also engage with the real people behind the “printed” words through their blogs and other online discussion of ideas.
We also have the benefit of broadcast media as a learning resource – there are many excellent films, documentaries, radio programmes and an opportunity to hear the voices of real people and gain from seeing their faces. The written word is powerful, but we can experience understanding beyond reading books.
Lessing observes an imbalance between desire for education of people in Africa and their lack of books, and those of us in a prosperous world who have access but little respect for learning. This can seem true when newspapers report that girls value looking pretty over being bright. However, this polemic by Rosie Boycott is promoting the opinion of Carol Platt Liebau as expressed in her new book “Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Damages Girls (and America, Too!)”.
An obsession with appearance is noted also by Lessing in her claims of good-looking authors being feted and hyped – at the expense of their ability to harness their writing abilities. She also observes that voices of writers in places such as Africa are unheard because of a lack of publishers.
Again, we can look to the internet as enabling everyone to become a publisher for free. This is empowering in itself – although it is noticeable that those who are already successful tend to decry this capability of new media.
It is not just an ability to read, write or love literature that is required in the modern world – but the skills to sort the good from the mediocre; the valid from the superficial. We need to be capable of reflecting on what we read – regardless of its source – and be able to question the motives of authors.
Today, literacy involves much more than knowledge and access to reading materials – although these are vitally important. We need the desire and willingness to open our minds to new ideas, to empathise with others, to recognise good writing and relish it.
We also need to be aware of where messages are biased – and not just those from organisations with commercial interests. We need to be literate in a world that is over-stuffed with content – where words are devalued by their overuse; where open, message-free, space is rare.
This ability to question and reflect is a defence, but we must not become defensive and cynical. We’ve learned not to trust the voices of so many people. Rather than being inspired, we often feel manipulated by those who are clever with words.
But a curiosity about life, about others, about the world, is what fires education. Wanting to improve ourselves; to find out new things; to look back in history, around us at the contemporary world and imagine the future.
Books enable us to do this – in neat packages that have a benefit of portability and easy access. I love books but also recognise the value that can be gained from new media.
Of course, not everyone has access to online either – and if they do, can they find the good from the superficial nonsense. The same applies to the printed word.
What the world needs most at present is inspiration, fire for our natural enthusiasms, recognition of the potential that is around and within us and encouragement to learn for ourselves. That is real education, in my view.