[17 March 2014]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Bitch (bich) n. 1. The female of the dog, wolf, fox, etc.
So reads the definition of the word “bitch” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary’s fourth edition. As a teenager in high school, it was always fun to look up cuss words and find imaginative ways to use them, wasn’t it? OK. So, maybe not for you, but for me, it was. Where I came from, study halls and lunch periods were not reserved for quiet time and eating food; rather, they just provided us with another opportunity to look up obscenities and ultimately flirt with landing detention.
Anyway, the United States education system set off a round of towering waves at the beginning of March when College Board officials announced plans to change up the SAT college entrance exam. Among the most notable differences to the test will be making the written essay optional, returning back to its 1,600-max score and doing away with some particularly difficult vocabulary words. Goodbye, “sagacious”. Hello, “empirical”. And “bitch”, for any of you wondering… well, that’s still up in the air. All of this is set to be implemented in 2016.
An explosion of editorials best seen on op-ed pages of newspapers almost immediately blasted into the stratosphere. “When the going gets tough, well, why not just make the going easier?” Kathleen Parker asked in the Washington Post. “These tweaks are a shame inasmuch as educators lose measures that provided critical information. The essay, for instance, wasn’t a call to Emersonian excellence but was a way of determining whether a student can compose a coherent sentence — you know: subject, verb, all that stuff — not to mention whether one can think. If a person can’t write a series of sentences to express a cogent thought, does that person really qualify for a college education? For what purpose?” (“The new SAT don’t care ’bout no fancy words”, 9 March 2014)
Now, I understand how easy it might be to label the move as nothing more than yet another way to dumb down an increasingly lazy country, but for the sake of this discussion, how about we surpass that and head toward a more frightening consequence: The seemingly increased irrelevance of thoughtful vocabulary and the loss of value put onto one’s ability (or even desire) to view reading as a viable form of personal entertainment and education. It’s as though the effort it takes to fully digest stories with actual words on paper is too much to handle in such a reactionary, up-to-the-minute culture.
Seems like the Powers That Be want to prove that this stuff isn’t really all that important, no? They want to claim that words—much like time, holidays and the Blow Pop—are just inventions. Why invest so much in their presence during the formative education of an entire country’s future when we’re all eventually going to be slaves to numbers and science, anyway? To hell with Clifford The Big Red Dog! That mutt can’t program a DVR!
Subliminal or not, this is sad news for a generation already convinced that the purest form of entertainment writing comes from TMZ. Which is, for those who may not already know, a website. Best seen on a computer. Or a tablet. Or a smartphone. Or basically anywhere that has a wifi connection and an electronic screen. Or (and forgive me for sounding like a complete Luddite), something that’s not on paper. Not a magazine. Not a newspaper. Not a newsletter. And, most disappointing of all, not a book.
Not even close to a book.
Why? Because as the web spreads itself wider and the technology behind it continues to evolve at a record pace, the practice of reading something written or typed on actual paper becomes more and more obsolete. E-Readers have made it possible to carry around entire bookshelves in our pockets and a general fading interest in having anything even remotely close to an attention span has taken this centuries-old medium and deemed it not only out-of-touch, but also impractical. As if a 93-ton Hummer, spewing out an array of gases that will inevitably help blow this planet into a trillion tiny pieces is the most reasonable way to get from Point A to Point B, right? But I digress.
The waning popularity of a hardback was something on my mind recently when I interviewed (name-drop alert!) Rosanne Cash. Knowing that she was coming to town as part of a program encouraging children to read more, I asked her if she had a preference when it came to how she goes about consuming her share of literature.
“I prefer books,” she told me. “When I first got the Kindle, I re-read Pride & Prejudice just to see how it would feel because it was a book I knew well and I wanted to see what the difference was. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t have the visceral satisfaction of holding a book.
“I always put a real book in my suitcase when I travel as well,” she eventually added, “just in case I want to feel it, you know what I mean?”
That, I do. For as long as I can remember, I’ve often argued that actually writing and subsequently getting an outside company to publish your own book would be life’s ultimate achievement. Not only for taking the time to write hundreds of pages worth of stuff, but also because it would mean someone else in the world thinks whatever you’re writing is good enough to get behind. Just envision it coming together into one tangible, large set of paper pieces. Holding it in your hands. Feeling the weight of all those pages neatly organized into one ultimate piece of work. That instantly recognizable new-book smell. Opening the gold leaf embossed, hand-crafted leather-bound cover for the first time… It would be an exercise in ego, sure, though it would also be one of the most thrilling things one could possibly experience artistically.
I mean, it’s a book, man.
You know—the thing people reserve entire buildings to store and subsequently lend out? The thing that connects us to generations far gone and serves as the single reference point for so many teachers and learners? The thing that can’t be ruined and lost forever if you drop it into a tub filled with water (thank you, hair-dryers!)? The thing that helped shape our perception of history by being the single material object responsible for chronicling the many details of the distant past as well as what’s always happening in the present? The thing that reminds you how accomplished you should feel once you’ve successfully slogged your way through 635 pages of Captain Ahab’s time at sea, running down a damn whale?
Actually, that last one might be the single most essential reason we hold books near and dear to our hearts in the first place. There’s a payoff when you finish reading a long piece of text displayed on single pieces of paper, and that payoff is the internal gratification felt as a result of closing the back cover for the final time. It’s a feeling of completeness, a feeling of satisfaction impossible to re-create through the same screen we use to update our fantasy sports rosters or post mundane tweets about ABC’s Scandal. Once you achieve it, that bookmark can find a new home and those corners can be bent back to their original positions. One mountain has been climbed and it’s time to make plans for what it takes to scale the next.
Yet those mountains are becoming increasingly depopulated with the rise in prominence of e-readers. A story last year in USA Today profiled how sales of electronic books have increased by nearly 4,500 percent since 2008, and while sales were categorized as “slowed down” in 2013, there was still a 43 percent uptick in e-book purchases. In 2012, data showed that 557 million hardcovers were sold while 457 e-books were moved. Sure, that means there’s still work to do for the electronic form of the medium, but consider: The two most popular tools for consuming as much—Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad—were released in 2007 and 2010, respectively. You don’t need to pass the SATs to realize that’s a hell of a gap that’s already been closed in no more than a single decade. (“E-book sales are up 43%, but that’s still a ‘slowdown’”, 16 May 2013)
It’s also a gap that I don’t fully understand. Why? Because if nothing else, books are unique documents. Each has a texture that is singular and exclusive to its personality as a living form of art. Maybe the cover is torn or page 293 has a few words missing from a torn page. Plus, not only do they tell the story that can be found through the words between the covers, but they also tell a story about our own lives, about where we’ve been, what climates, settings and atmospheres we’ve experienced during a specific set of time.
That coffee stain on Chapter 1’s right side pages. The sand that might fall from the crevices after taking it to the beach. These are things that quite literally cannot be duplicated through the exercise of reading literature on an electronic device. Why we have become so fascinated with acquiring as much artistic content as possible—in as tiny a physical space as possible—is baffling to me. How are we to fully digest these works, be it music, literature, painting and even television and movies, if the main purpose behind our consumption is merely to say we’ve consumed? Why is it suddenly so important to adhere to some unwritten law of practicality that could possibly minimize the depth of our interests?
There was a time, I’ve been told, when you could walk into somebody’s house and understand a lot about who you were dealing with by simply looking at the person’s bookshelf. Was it large? What kind of books sat there? How many shelves were empty? How much space was taken up? What kind of stuff did this person enjoy reading? Did any of those texts actually look like they’ve been read? Was it all for show, or was this person a super-serious, bookworm-esque, don’t-get-in-my-way-when-you-see-me-with-a-book… reader?
These days, that practice is supposed to be simulated with the help of social media. I don’t buy it. Posting status updates or 140-character, knee-jerk reviews is hardly inviting an outsider into a home, organically stumbling across conversations about things that were read, things that were perceived. I mean, my goodness: You’d be surprised to find how an off-handed discussion about Anna Karenina could eventually lead you to a quick exchange about the band Wilco. But it can happen.
Trust me. It can happen.
“We feel that the book is a nearly perfect technology as it is, and that is why it’s been around for so long,” Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick Press, told NPR in 2012 while discussing the release of a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey. “People tend to remember the books that they had when they were children as physical objects. They remember what the book felt like in their hand, where it sat in their room, they take it under the covers at night, they take it outside to read under a tree. It’s a very precious object, it gets some power over us as we read it, it sort of becomes part of us and we become part of it in a very interesting way.” (“Put Down Your E-Reader: This Book Is Better In Print”, by Lynn Neary, 28 September 2012)
Indeed. In a time when technology is seemingly revolutionizing the way nearly all forms of art are distributed, there needs to be an element of perspective attached to innovation. E-books, for all their clear advantages and conveniences, are nothing more than a static substitute for an aspect of poplar culture that has withstood the test of time, be it from religious upheavals, to brilliant storytelling, to historical accounts, to tools for the education of people both young and old.
Yet with the relatively recent rise in popularity of electronic readers and all their many multimedia bells and whistles, we ought not forget the status of The Book in our lives and in our development as human beings. It was there when we needed to hear something while falling asleep as infants. It was there when we needed to kill time on long spouts of travel. It was there when we needed help bringing like-minded friends into our lives. And, most importantly, it was there when we needed to learn, when we needed to buckle down and educate ourselves on how to get a good enough SAT score to land us in a reputable college.
So, sure. Take your big words and your mandatory essays for now if you must, College Board. Just don’t forget that if you someday decide to make the jump yourselves to e-testing, the idea to hand out 200 points for spelling a name correctly might have to be revisited. Because as a big, old book filled with millions of words once taught me, auto-correct can be one hell of a female dog.