Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Is reading the 21st century Yugo?

I know the publishing industry is in trouble. I know this because I have read about it -- in newspapers, in magazines and on-line. I have also spoken with friends in the newspaper, magazine and book industries who are concerned about their livelihood and, secondarily, about the demise of the printed word as an instrument of communication. As someone who has always enjoyed reading and writing, I don't look forward to the day when newspapers are "published" strictly on-line, or my favorite magazines stop arriving at my house at their scheduled weekly or monthly times. From the moment the first Mad magazine arrived in my mailbox -- in a brown paper wrapper, yet -- when I was about 8 or 9 years old, a magazine delivered to my house, something especially and only for me, always brightens my day, no matter how bright that day might have already been.

More worrisome, of course, is what people will do, like my good friend Scott Gilmore did in college, when there are no more newspapers to use as blankets on the couch they've decided to use as their home that particular week, or month, or semester, or entire academic year. Gilmore wasn't so much underprivileged or broke as he was convinced that he could not summon the "pain" necessary to succeed as a poet or street musician until he had suffered accordingly. After a few weeks of what seemed like a few years of sleeping under the cushions and newspapers of the beat-up, disgusting couch that served as the depository for unwanted beer, Long Island Ice Tea, bong water, stolen cafeteria food and other such aromatic delights, Gilmore thought he had suffered enough to read his poetry to the friends who had yet to report him to our local public hygiene authorities.

Taking a swig of beer out of one side of his mouth while, at the same time, nursing a cigarette on the other side, Gilmore began reading . . .

"Tonight is the past of the future I will never see."

We waited. And waited. And waited. We thought there was more. There wasn't.

"So," he said. "What do you think?"

Of course, it fell to me, on whose couch Gilmore was sleeping, to offer the first comment.

"One big cliche," I said.

Gilmore took another drag of his cigarette, which appeared to have burning through the filter, while, at the same time, taking another swig of his beer, then stormed out of our room.

"Ivers," he shouted to the near empty house that could have cared less, "just told me my life was one big cliche."

That's not what I said. But it did get him off my couch for an hour or two, until he returned later that night to sleep under his cushions and newspapers and, of course, suffer some more. And suffer he did after my roommate, who had Gilmore by at least 30 lbs, sat on him the following morning while enjoying, as he did every morning, his first cup of coffee and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

* * * * * * * * * *

A couple of recent observations have left me to wonder whether there is a place for people like Scott Gilmore anymore in our contemporary society. No, no, no . . . not bad poets . . . there will never be a shortage of them. No, the bigger question is whether the printed word will continue to have an audience beyond people who find themselves desperate for something to read while taking a bathroom break. And we've all been there, right? The need to use the restroom in someone else's house, and, with no reading materials provided, you start reading the back of toothpaste tubes or shampoo bottles or the bottom of the bathroom scale. "Oh, so that's the active ingredient that combats plaque and tartar! Who knew?" Or, "Unilever makes Suave Shampoo and landmines. Interesting!" Or you start to notice things like how the only current copies of Reader's Digest -- ones less than three years old -- are found in houses with at least one regular occupant over the age of 75, or, if in an orthopedist's office, how there seems to be a fairly strong correlation between golf magazines and the percentage of men who play that sport, or at least read about it, in need of erectile dysfunction medication.

Traveling on Amtrak between New York and Washington recently, I was struck by the number of people who don't read anymore. Most everyone, without regard to age, ethnic origin, personal style, dress or manner, was glued to their phone or, as the conductors and flight attendants now call them, handheld electronic device.

Scroll! Scroll! Scroll!

Press! Press! Press!

Flip! Flap! Flup!

"Please, please, please," these people seemed to be pleading, "someone email me, text me, leave a message so I can have something to because I simply don't want to read." All I could think about was how the relationship between individuals and their phones have created a whole new field of co-dependency, as if these little devices are their personal Ouija Boards . . . that if they rub them, press them and caress them enough times, someone will contact them from the Other World with an important message:

"i am sooo wasted. r u?"

Passengers who appeared to my age or close to it weren't immune from holding these seance-like rituals over their phones. Of course, it could be that they have much more important jobs than I do -- that is, after all, a pretty low bar to cross -- or it could be that the thought of having to read . . . or wanting to read . . . is too terrifying to consider. The latter seems to make more sense than the first possibility. Two well-dressed young men sitting across from me who had been glued to their Crackberries since we all got the train together in New York. When they got up to go the snack car after about an hour or so into our journey, they either forgot their Crackberries or were letting their thumbs go for a nice stretch. Left within reading distance from me, I could see what they were doing, and it wasn't "working." They were playing video games.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the public restrooms located in my academic building, I hear young men clicking away while they're in the restroom. In addition to just plain bizzare, it turns their phone into a pretty effective disease transmitter. Really, would you want to borrow a phone from a 19 year-old who has just spent anywhere from 2 to 20 minutes texting, web-surfing or scrolling his phone for someone to talk to (yes, talking on the phone while taking care of one's personal business has become standard operating procedure in my part of the world)? I sure as hell wouldn't. But I guess that makes me "uptight" and "old," as one teenage technological wizard recently informed me I was.

Oh, well.

And then there is simply matter of reading directions. Over the years, college students have become enormously fixated on the syllabus you provide to them the first day of class. As many of them like to say, "the syllabus is a contract between student and professor." Actually, it's not, and I don't know why so many of them have that impression. But, as I once learned in an umpiring class I took shortly after I graduated from college, never let facts get in the way of a good story.

Or that might have been the first magazine editor I worked for during a summer internship in college. I honestly can't remember.

Either way, students want everything written down for them, from everything I will ask them to read and write and remember to what time I plan to dismiss class on April 21st if it's not raining and they want to get on the road to travel somewhere. Over the years, I have accommodated this request, and my course syllabus is about as specific as it gets when it comes to who, what, where, why and when. I don't always know what I'll be teaching on any particular day; but I do make it quite clear what the course requirements are; how many classes they can miss; how many homework assignments they can miss; when my office hours are; the procedures for emailing me; why they cannot play with their phones in class; text message; place a bomb under another student's desk; have sex with themselves or another consenting student; fix their make-up or call their bookies. They wanted specifics and they got them. I even put things on the syllabus reminding them that students who do not participate in a group project will not receive credit for it. That would seem to make sense, right -- that students who don't do any work don't get any credit? Many years ago, though, I had a student take a complaint as far as she could that I was "unfair" to her by giving her a zero on a group project to which she did not contribute. Because I didn't, in the syllabus, reserve the right to "zero out" a student who didn't do the work, I was unfair to her. The committee that hears such complaints agreed, and allowed her to change her grade from an F to a W, so as not to "damage" her chances of going to Harvard Law School. I never found out what happened to her, mostly because I didn't care. But I did learn that she never made it to Harvard or anywhere else for law school.

So, this morning, I announced to one class of mine that many of them in it had a special incentive to do well on the midterm I gave them to hand in next Monday. Why? Because many of them have already forfeited a letter grade by not coming to class or turning in the homework, even though my syllabus states very clearly and specifically what the requirements in both cases are. So, with nearly half a semester remaining, a fair number of students in a class of almost 40 have already resigned themselves, at best, to a B. The look of shock and "really?" that came across many of their faces when I announced this was nothing short of stunning. Several students flipped through the course syllabus that many of them keep in their notebooks -- the ones that bring notebooks and pens to class, that is -- to see if I was making this up. Nope, I wasn't -- it was all right there.

I suppose I could have accommodated these students even further my simply text-messaging the syllabus to their phones. Or "Twitter-ing" them. But that would require that I (1) learn what Twitter is and (2) possess an interest in doing whatever the hell Twittering is. Zero for two on both counts.

There is a simpler solution. Hold the piece of paper that I've given you in your hand.

And read it.

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