I read in the New York Times that, by twenty-one, the average American has spent three times as many hours playing virtual games as reading. I’ve been sharing this factoid for the last couple of weeks.
Some people ask about the source of the figure, how it might be broken down by gender, age, and class, and what definitions determine its key terms. Others see it as evidence of the cultural whirlpool threatening to flush us all. To me, however, the most interesting response comes from people unfazed by the news. “That seems about right,” they say, waving off the figure’s incendiary intent.
Being an English teacher, I’m tempted to arm myself against a sea of amusements (again), but I’m fighting to remain calm too. I’m not a young American and don’t know virtual games well enough to judge their merit. And I can’t look into the future to assess how relevant reading will be. Though I teach literature, I’m ready to accept it’s had a good run and other skills may be more relevant. Let’s face it, reading has many worthy entertainment rivals. Sometimes I’d rather watch TV, stream a movie, listen to music, or wander around online than pick up a novel. I don’t see how a book can compete with a video game.
And I’m getting used to the idea that reading for pleasure sets me apart. I am perversely cool by being thoroughly un-cool and may be even happier as my reading habits become more outmoded, arcane, and eccentric. If the statistic is valid, my talents interpreting writing will soon be rare. Demand will drop, but I’ll splash around in a smaller supply pool. Nothing beats the sanctimonious glee of being a correct minority.
I’m joking, a little. I’m supposed to care, not just because it’s my livelihood but because literature is high culture and virtual games are not. Still, the statistic is a strange relief, a welcome salve to my teacherly despair. The talented and experienced readers in my classes are capable students, but others seem to be slipping. I’ve been wondering why, year after year, readers become slower and more careless. Twenty page assignments are now “long” and books rated at a fifth grade level are “hard.” I’m happy to know the problem might not be me or my colleagues.
In any case mourning seems wasted energy. I need energy and resourcefulness to educate inexperienced and uninterested readers, and I can’t feel sorry for myself. The greater challenge follows. Widespread literacy arose from deciding reading is essential, a gateway to recovering profound thoughts and learning. We’re in the opposite situation now. No one needs to be an expert gamer to recover truth. Games are fun, but while skill might bring social cachet and train minds in useful ways, they have, as yet, fewer practical applications.
I feel like a successful English teacher if I can convince students the work of reading can lead to pleasure. I’ll let others pioneer the reverse process, how to turn the pleasure of playing games into useful work.