Writers On Writing 3
Preserving our Future
Travel back with me into the not-so-distant past...
It is now only a week before the release of the animated feature film Anastasia.
I am en route to Boston with one of my best friends, who tells me his daughter is
wrestling with the question of whether to see this or The Little Mermaid,
which Disney plans to re-release on precisely the same day; I ask my friend to predict how
young Justine will solve this cinematic conundrum.
"Oh, shell go with Anastasia," he replies, confidence in his
tone. "She can always watch Little Mermaid on videotape." And a
light bulb goes off over my head. . .
Before we examine that light bulb and its glow, lets go back still further, to my
boyhood days of the late 1960s and early 70s, when the only way to savor a
story again and again was through printed material books, magazines, comics.
Once a movie left the theaters, or a television series was dropped, there was no way to
recapture it nothing but the memories remained. Print and print alone offered
the delights of revisitation: the ability to read was a magic key, and kids used it on a
whim to unlock the worlds of Tom and Huck, Batman and Doc Savage, James Bond and Tarzan
and scores of other familiar fictional friends.
Now fast-forward to the light bulb clicking on for me that was the moment
I realized that the VCR and computer had obliterated the paradigms of my youth. Videotape
allows toddlers to watch Barney, the Disney characters, Bugs Bunny, Casper, and others
literally hundreds of times before theyre capable of holding a book, much
less reading it. For these kids, entertainment-on-demand is no longer tied to the mastery
of "See Jane. See Spot," it is practically their birthright. That means, to many
youngsters today, reading is no magic key it is, in fact, nothing special,
simply a skill learned in school, like the multiplication tables. And when were
multiplication tables ever any fun?
As writers, this state of affairs should be cause for both concern and action. We
believe in the worth of the scrawl; we yearn for the opportunity to enrich the lives of
others through the words we create, much as a lifetime spent reading our favorite authors
has enriched us. To insure us that opportunity, writers must be in the vanguard of
introducing the youngest generation to The Wonder Of Reading.
Of course, there is a question we should first address: "Does reading still
possess Wonder in todays high-tech society?" I would answer in the affirmative
for a handful of reasons:
(1) Reading is interactive. It requires involvement and participation while film
and videotape encourage simple, slack-jawed receptivity. Reading not only sharpens and
improves the mind, it nurtures independent thinking, a skill increasingly rare in
this sharing, caring, co-dependent society.
(2) Reading offers a depth of materials, topics, and styles neither movies nor
computers can match. Computer applications and games may offer a degree of
interactivity, but they also they tend to be limited in scope. And would Moby Dick or
War And Peace be considered classics if they existed only in their feature film
(3) Reading can be done anytime, anywhere. To paraphrase the late Dr. Isaac
Asimov: wouldnt it be marvelous if we invented a cassette that could allow access to
the accumulated stories and knowledge of the world, a cassette small enough to be held in
ones hand, requiring no peripherals or outside power source? Answering his own
question, Asimov pointed out that we have already invented such a miraculous product
it is called "a book."
If we conclude there is still Wonder attached to the art of reading, how do we impart
that Wonder to kids? For those youngsters who can already read, we must insure they have
access to books and magazines. For those who cant, we must read to them.
I have no children of my own, but I have two nieces and a nephew. Whenever I send them
Christmas or birthday presents I always make sure one of their gifts is a book; not
only does this encourage their parents to read to them, on those (all too infrequent,
alas) occasions when I visit it gives me a chance to ask if I can read to them. My
four-year-old niece is now in the habit of coming to me, book in hand, without being
asked; I like to think her younger brother and cousin will follow suit when they reach her
Writers cannot expect their offspring, their nephews and nieces, or their other
youthful relatives to grow up appreciating their work unless they read to these children
and, in later years, encourage them to read on their own.
There is more than can be done, of course. Those who have the time can expand their
efforts beyond their families: they can volunteer to work in a literacy program, or visit
high schools and junior highs to talk about a writers life, or start a storytime at
the nearest library or bookseller willing to host such a program.
Naturally, many of us dont have that time were too busy
working day jobs, writing at night, and trying to carve out a sliver of leisure time to
avoid the traps of "all work and no play." Those constraints may prevent us from
becoming a school lecturer or literacy volunteer, but they do not prevent us from
finding ways to help get printed materials into the hands of children. Are the bookstores
in your town lacking a fondly-remembered book from your childhood? Ask them to stock it,
and dont be afraid to show them your enthusiasm (enthusiasm is contagious)! Does
your library subscribe to Highlights For Children, Boys Life, or Humpty
Dumpty? Ask if they would accept your gift subscription for one of those magazines.
At the very least, why not invest $25 a year on childrens reading materials
(thats the equivalent of three or four items bought during a bookstore sale, or a
dozen comics fresh off the newsstand), then donate them to hospitals, libraries, schools,
orphanages, youth centers, or other places where they can be read and enjoyed by a variety
of kids? Some of them are sure to realize this stuff is so cool they just have to
get more. . .
Those are my ideas. Im sure there are many, many others as good, if not better.
For those of us who want to keep the label "Writer" from becoming a mere job
classification within spirit-crushing multinational corporations, where teams of
well-meaning hacks grind out work-for-hire computer games or videotaped product, it is
imperative we act on these ideas, not just talk about them
because especially for writers, especially today, children are our future.
Next Installment: Writers on Writing
4: An Empty Moment in Time - How Not to Write