Why Write Books?

Among the many ways to tell a story, what makes books/novels still one of the most effective and useful mediums for delivering a story?

For whatever reason, this question came to me and lingered in my head as I recently read the novel Barometer Rising. The historical nature of the story had me comparing the events of the novel to a news report, documentary, and even to more modern movies that I’ve seen. I can’t imagine any of these, or even other forms of digital story telling would be as effective as communicating this particular story as the technology of a book.

Book stories are slow, they simmer, even the fast paced ones release an aroma that permeates the minds of characters and objects in the novel. BR is filled with the city of Halifax’s presence, until the final explosion. This is significant to the story itself. Messages have rich weight in novels. Many modern digital story telling platforms are fragmented.

Despite this permeation, books are a medium that requires readers to complete the connection between information sender and receiver. Unlike more visual media, the black and white pages force the reader to be active in creating the story in their minds. This activity, this closure, engages readers with the same lure of a black and white photo, enticing a reader into it signal, to fill in the color.

Language alone is a limited technology. However, words strung together can form metaphors that reveal what descriptions cannot. More words combined in paragraphs and scenes, act like cells that form organs and organisms, creating bodies and worlds. In BR each chapter uniquely covers one day in the span of the story – readers are drawn into a world filled with time and duration.

Understanding the people and the place in BR was key to confronting complex messages about the war and the impact it had on North American soil. The character Geoffery Wain made me see that the bored generation of wealthy new world aristocrats, born at the top with nowhere to go, backed and extended the war because it provided them with a hierarchy to climb. Their impact on North American society was as devastating as a bomb on Canadian soil, not only for fanning the flames of war but also for neglecting the promise of a new world, and for neglecting the new type of man and woman born of this continent.

The experience of the Halifax explosion, the significance of the events would be lost on me, were it not sent via book, sliced out of time.


Distance as Center

I just finished a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It’s a book from the early 1980s that takes a television specific look at how technology and media influence North American society. The book may be a bit dated in that TV is no longer the apex of mass communication that it was 30 years ago, although from several other perspectives many of the ideas in the book transfer well to other technology and media contexts. I love these types of books – books on tech that are just a few decades old – because they present ideas about the effects of tech and media on a simpler backdrop.

The book ends (the last 2 chapters) with some strong ideas, one of which is that education curriculum is bending toward the particular affordances of television. A related point that Postman makes is that because television is so prevalent in everyday life (he states that teenagers watch 16,000 hrs of TV by High School graduation) schools have simply forgotten to question television’s character.
Looking back at this claim from 2015, we can easily see the limitations of mere television broadcasting. And we now know that it is much better to unquestioningly prepare our educational systems for a “21st century world” in which digital technology, asynchronous communication, and social learning are the real tech and media powerhouses that the next generation will inherit. Right?
No, not right.
Despite being written in 1985 and focusing specifically on television, the 2nd last paragraph of the book provides a timeless quote:
“…it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it will be placed at the center of education.”

Internal Images and Popular Images

I found myself at a curious decision point with my daughter’s upbringing yesterday. It might seem like a small thing to be concerned with, and I don’t mean to make it into a bigger decision that it actually was, but I do think it’s an important one because there are probably many ways to consider the situation – I’d be interested in any educators’ opinions out there – here’s the synopsis:

I’ve been reading the Harry Potter books with my daughter. We started this summer, finished book #1 about a month ago and now we’re about half-way into book #2. My daughter is turning 6 next month, and these are the first novel-style books that she has engaged with, and the first books for her that have no illustrations.

When we first started reading I was prepared to cut-bait on them if she wasn’t interested, or couldn’t keep up comprehensively (we’re reading them in English, which isn’t her first language). She was fine, and actually loved the stories from the start, peppering me with question after question which I dutifully answered. Especially at first, many of her questions were about what the characters look like, expressing some frustration about not being able to picture Hagrid or Harry in her head because she didn’t know what she should picture.

This was exactly what I was hoping for, to try to develop her independent thinking and creativity, and it was one of the reasons I decided to start reading the books with her. I walked through this process a bit, and we talked in some detail about “creating images of the character in your head”.  I returned many of her questions about this with questions of my own: “What do you think Hagrid looks like?” “How tall do you want Harry to be?” “How long do you think Harry’s hair should be?” – always, I was sure to mention something like “You’re in charge of your own mind. You can choose what these characters look like in your own head.” She got the hang of it, it was great.

So, along come the Harry Potter movies.

It was a significant decision, I feel, about when to start watching the movies with her. I know that once we watched them, those images that she created in her mind would be forever replaced with the movie interpretations of the Harry, Ron and Hermonie characters.

I was ok with this, for several reasons. One reason being that we exist in a world with both individual interpretation AND mass culture – and, in this world, we all experience each at different times. It is worthwhile to participate in both types of information creation, the matter falls on how to balance the participation. Another reason was that she had already gone through the process of forming these images in her head, which was my main purpose – not the clinging to her created images. And another reason was that conceptually, she was missing out on a lot of the story. Because of her age and her limited vocabulary, there was much she couldn’t understand in the book, and I think having more images to associate with the language will now actually help to improve her conceptual abilities and her language abilities (perhaps at the expense of her creative thinking some…but, learning is always a balance).

So, yeah, yesterday evening we watched the first movie. It was fun and she enjoyed it greatly. There were many points where I could see the light bulb flash in her mind. I only wonder about the timing of it. Would it have been better to wait for a few more books? Or, until the end of the series?