Reading is dead. Long live reading!

Did anyone else get caught up in the saga of Bob, Bill and Barb this week?

If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, stop what you’re doing and check out this beyond excellent Twitter thread to witness storytelling magic unfold at breakneck speed, through a stream of tweets that are meme-illustrated to perfection.

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Couldn’t resist.

These are my confessions (of a book-sniffing semi-technophobe)

After I’d recovered, I started thinking about how writers using social media are able to carve out a more social and democratic space for storytelling. I’m new to blogging so I *imagine* I’m a bit late to this party. Already I feel slightly overwhelmed by the amount of talent on WordPress; the sea of brilliant articles, poetry, creative writing. All here, for free, for other people’s perusal and enjoyment. And I’ve barely dipped my toe in.

In many respects though, I’ve been looking for traditional content. I’ve been searching for books or newspapers digitised – something I can sit down and spend a focused five minutes with during a tea break. The idea that ‘140-characters-or-less/ can-barely-write-a-sentence’ Twitter could be a medium to tell a story with as much drama as that of Bob, Bill and Barb AND that this could be free and instantly available to anyone online?

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It made me remember a Facebook discussion I spied in on between some old school friends.  Friend A is a male social marketing success; Friend B is a female secondary English teacher and fellow bookworm. They were talking about this BBC article, which reports that children – and especially boys – have a significant decline in their enjoyment of reading from the end of primary school.

Friend A welcomed this, seeing it as an indictment of the UK education system’s emphasis on book-based learning, a wake-up call to start thinking about more experiential types of learning, and that this should be used to encourage a rethink of what reading and learning should mean in the digital age.

A: Basically, if kids want to throw away the paperbacks, that’s cool. Let’s adapt.

Friend B was much more of the view of the guy the article quotes: Reading is important to help people improve their writing, to thrive in education and subsequently find employment: “Remember that everything counts, whether they want to read a fictional story, newspaper, magazine or comic.”

B: Reading will be key until we’ve replaced the printed or digital word with images only.

I think there are two arguments here which sort of run past each other. Both of them are right.

We do need to make sure children and young adults keep their pleasure and competency in reading. But we also need to understand that – for teenagers in particular – newspapers, magazine and comics aren’t necessarily what they want to look at.

Some will. Many will want new sorts of content.

It might be a serialised blog of a high-school thriller. It might be a gif-tastic Twitter story (although ‘Bob, Bill and Barb’ is perhaps a little adult). All of these are valid, important ways to learn about words and story-telling. If we shut this down and enforce a quiet hour reading a paperback in the library (this was the ‘fortnightly reading class’ when I was school, when many of my peers sneakily put their headphones in and had a nap), is this really going to stem their ebbing joy for the written word?

I’ve worked quite a bit with kids with extra learning needs from year 6 upwards (that’s age 10+) to help them with their reading and get them inspired by words and books, and I’ve seen them fall out of love. It’s a little heartbreaking watching a bright, inner-city, non-privileged 11 year old who absolutely adores stories struggle through a few pages of a book that’s too young for them over half an hour.

But when this kid tells you they are working with one of their classmates to make a film on their phone that they’ll show in assembly, when they tell you they’re using an app you’ve never heard of, when they sketch out on paper what the characters look like, what their names are (with help with spelling, where needed) – that’s the epiphany that ditching books can still get kids writing, creating, and perhaps most importantly, realising that they can have a voice. That needs to be encouraged.

While this may be book-sacrilege, and while I know I’ll always have tomes covering every surface of my flat, reading for pleasure doesn’t need to be restricted to printed words. It doesn’t even need to be limited to conventional digital media.

This is the revelation of a 27 year old. Perhaps the kids already know it?

P.S. I’m trying to get to grips with the Twitter thing as I get to grips with the WordPress thing. Come and say hello! 

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