Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: videogames were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries -- and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they're all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:Man, novels sure are bad for us. Reading this post alone is probably going to destroy your life. I'm so sorry!
Reading books chronically under-stimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying -- which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements -- books are simply a barren string of words on the page.
Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him- or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new 'libraries' that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers.
But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to 'follow the plot' instead of learning to lead.
Novel Reading Is Bad For You!
This list of actual reasons for admission into the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum from the late 1800s is amazing. It's also amusing, with some seemingly legitimate (but still funny) options, some that seem more medical in nature, and some that are outright bonkers, my favorite of which is "Novel Reading". As Clive Thompson notes, "Back when novels were 'new media', cultural elites soberly inveighed against their addictive, mind-altering qualities." Heh. This reminds me of Steven Johnson's thought exercise in Everything Bad is Good For you, where he applies current thinking about video games to novels.