Medium Rare

December 21, 2010 at 12:24 am (By Amba)

I’m being shown a good time, shlepped along to all sorts of exotic entertainments and parties — exotic to me, anyway.  Yesterday I was taken to Chapel Hill’s 17th annual Cow Raising, an absurd pseudopagan ritual that involves winching two life-size fiberglass bovines netted in Christmas lights into the trees, while singing “cowrols” with rewritten, cow-related lyrics.  (You hadda be there, and even then . . . it was one big in-joke that had ballooned over the years like one of those 100-acre underground fungi.  It felt like being a new freshman in a high school most of whose occupants had been together since kindergarten.)  Tonight I was taken to another annual ritual, a reading of an abridged A Christmas Carol in an Episcopal church by the novelists Allan Gurganus and Michael Malone.

Which brings me to my real subject.  The performance/readings were delicious, but the real star of the show was Charles Dickens’s prose:  witty, vivid, beguiling, moral.  His words, as alive as the day he wrote them, buttonholed you, got up in your face, made you see, made you laugh, made you feel.  There was a boy of eleven or twelve sitting next to my friend in the pew, his eyes glazed over.  He’d admitted to her before the performance that he’d seen the Muppets’ version; she figured that was better than nothing, at least a place to start.  But I pitied him for his inability to hop aboard the fast-moving train of densely packed, intricate words and be carried deep into his own imagination.

Young people are served up ready-made images.  Even in videogames or MMORPGs, where they can assemble their own avatars, they are given ready-made, modular elements to choose from.  As magical as modern media are, they’ve got nothing, but nothing, on mere words.  No other medium recruits the recipient’s brain to the same degree, making you not just a consumer but a cocreator.  When you read, you must dream up your own visuals and characters — no mere metaphor, because the process is as spontaneous and inexplicably fertile as dreaming.  Reading exercises the muscle of the imagination like nothing else — and with such economy of means!

And with so little, great writing does even more.  It engages you visually, emotionally, intellectually, and morally all at once.  (Words can even evoke kinesthetic and tactile sensations, tastes, and smells.)  It transmits the texture of experience as a multimodal whole, the way it is lived.  What a magical medium, and how it elaborates your inner space and trains your power!  I really do feel pity for people who don’t read — and gratitude to J. K. Rowling for almost singlehandedly saving this rare form of wizardry for another generation.


  1. wj said,

    It’s not only that Rowling has saved the magic of the written word for another generation. Because going from words on a page (whether you read them yourself or have them read aloud to you by your parents) to images in your mind is one of the foundations of the imagination. Any kind of imagination, including the kind that dreams up solutions to new problems or improved solutions to old problems. Starting from a video game or a movie just doesn’t put the same premium on using your own mind to contribute actively to the story.

    In short, Rowling may have been a major contributor to saving (Western) civilization for another generation. And that’s not hyperbole, actually — when you consider the proportion of the population who read her stories, but otherwise were strangers to written fiction.

  2. amba12 said,

    Yep. Credit where due.

  3. Maxwell James said,

    OK, I’m all for HP and whatnot, and fiction reading is one of the primary pleasures in my life, but I’ll be the crank: there just isn’t a lot of evidence that the series had all that much impact on reading habits. Perhaps someone has done a study since that article was published which proves the case, but I’m not seeing it.

    Moreover, there also isn’t evidence that video games – or even TV! – actually impede kids thinking in any meaningful way; indeed, there is some evidence that they have benefits for cognition. It’s almost certainly a different kind of cognition than that exercised by reading, but that doesn’t make it inferior.

    Which is to say: We so often lament about young kids rolling their eyes at the thought of reading a book. And yet many people also roll their eyes at the thought of playing a video game, but I see no one weeping for them.

  4. amba12 said,

    I’m not qualified to evaluate the cognitive effects of videogames since the only one I ever really played was Myst, which was deliberately book-like (and absolutely addictive). Have you played them much, Maxwell?

  5. Maxwell James said,

    Sure, plenty. My experience of their cognitive effects is that it really varies. As a teenager, I was completely addicted to Civilization, a slow, engrossing strategy game that probably paved the way for my interest in economics. And while video games are often (mostly appropriately imo) thought of as antisocial, I had a lot of good social interactions playing lighthearted Nintendo games with friends. And I think Rock Band & the like are a great development in terms of both musical education & cooperative gameplay.

    I do think the addictiveness of games (which is not all that different from the addictiveness of reading, except in that games often take longer) is a real problem in terms of discipline development – at least it was for me. And it definitely feeds into the more autistic tendencies in young kids, especially boys. As an adult I now play games in a much more bounded manner than I ever would have as a child. But I continue to value what I’ve learned from them.

  6. wj said,

    The issue isn’t the pernicious effects (if any) of video games or movies. It is the pernicious effects of those entertainments…to the exclusion of reading. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on computer games over the years myself. Ditto movies and television (which, for the purposes of this discussion, have the same lack of requirement for imagination on the part of the viewer).

    But I’ve spent even more time reading. And it is the lack of reading, rather than the amount of time spent on specific non-reading pursuits, which I think are the issue. Granted there are other activities besides reading which can engage the imagination. But I somehow doubt that many children spend a lot of time sitting around the campfire telling stories — for just one example of possible alternatives.

  7. amba12 said,

    I would never want to argue against new media and their new effects on the mind. You can’t stop that process of invention and evolution, of course, and you shouldn’t if you could. I just think there’s nothing like reading’s effect on the mind and brain, that it is irreplaceable and would be a terrible loss if it were replaced. And not only because you could still do it if the grid went down, although that is a sign of a larger benefit — the way reading makes you provisioned and independent.

    When J was in the camp he used to tell himself, and his fellow prisoners, stories from books he’d read — Sherlock Holmes, The Count of Monte Cristo. He said it made him less a prisoner.

  8. Maxwell James said,

    Ditto movies and television (which, for the purposes of this discussion, have the same lack of requirement for imagination on the part of the viewer).

    I’m not so sure of that either. Consider the Kuleshov effect. It’s a different kind of imagination, but imagination all the same.

    But I completely agree that the competition/exclusion of reading is what’s harmful, and that moreover that harm is being felt economically by many people, right now.

  9. Icepick said,

    As an aside, Rock Band ruined a recent poker night with the guys. By the end of the evening most of the players were working their way through (horrendous) versions of Margaritaville and the like. It chased the rest ofus out of the house.

  10. michael reynolds said,

    I admire Ms. Rowling, but the notion that she saved reading is wrong. Before Harry Potter there was Goosebumps. The snobs didn’t like Goosebumps (because it was crap) but Stine was selling millions of books per month. Crediting her is like crediting Stephanie Meyer for somehow keeping reading alive now. It just ain’t true. What the big megahits actually do that is useful is to pump cash into publishing so that mid-list authors can be nurtured, and bring bodies into book stores.

    And count me in with Maxwell on at least some games. Jake is obsessing over MineCraft at the moment. There may be a better way to teach kids 3 dimensional visualization, but I haven’t seen it. You couldn’t begin to teach that with a book.

  11. amba12 said,

    Not saying books can teach 3-D visualization. Saying videogames can’t teach what words do.

    So you think “Harry Potter saved reading” is a media-created myth? Maybe — you know the field much better than the rest of us. However, such myths have their own glamour and momentum — they become virtuous cycles, or self-fulfilling prophecies.

  12. amba12 said,

    Maybe we can include a shout-out to Sweet Valley High, while we’re at it?

  13. michael reynolds said,

    Screw SVH, if we’re giving credit for an assist it goes to Animorphs for bridging the period between the decline of Goosebumps and the rise of Harry Potter.

  14. karen said,

    I so much am in love w/Harry Potter– & jk actually taught my son to read for any length of time in the 6th grade once we’d discovered his dyslexia.

    Then, i got hooked.

    We’ve re-read the books so often and it’s tradition for us to see ~the next movie~ together, just the two of us. The movies never seem to do justice to the books– having said that, it was through the 5th movie that i finally understood the reasoning of Harry’s dark mood of ~The Order of the Phoenix~ and it has become my favourite of the series.

    Now, my son– 18– is hooked on *Percy Jackson and ~The Last Olympians~ series, by Rick Riordan. I likey, meself- even f they are repeating in nature(frig repetative sp)!!
    He also devoured the ~Guardians of G’Hoole~ series about owls and Si, his 6th grade sis, is now on book 8. We’re still doing Junie B Jones w/my 7yr old.

    Cow raising. Isn’t funny what different phrases mean to different people?

    ps My son plays tons of ~Call of Duty~ on his Xbox w/friends and also w/people around the world. Hugely gross&gory graphics. Got that from his Dad.

  15. A said,

    I must be one of the few people in the universe who never got into the Harry Potter books.
    Just didn’t like the writing. I’m glad they created the phenomenon of people, especially kids, standing in lines waiting to buy the next thick tome for child or family consumption, and happy for Rowling’s success. But Dickens is another realm altogether. The description of early evening descending on London streets in the first few paragraphs of Bleak House is so deliciously rich. But I wonder about the fate of that sort of reading experience, just as I wonder when I watch a three- year- old acquaintance’s utter lack of interest in the tactile and sensory pleasures of playing with dolls, compared with loud, fast, colorful, jumpy images of dolls and doll clothes she can manipulate on the flat computer screen. It seems as big a shift, to me, as moving from oral traditions to print.

  16. amba12 said,

    I think you’re right: it IS as big a shift.

    I wonder whether tactile/multisensory experience translates better into words than into imagery on screens.

    For the record, I’ve read only one Harry Potter book. I held it to a terribly high standard, that of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, the magical book of MY childhood, which I would still recommend to any child or adult. I admired the imagination in Harry Potter — creations like the Mirror of Erised — but I did not like the two-dimensional, mean-spirited portrayal of the Muggles as ONLY gross and insensitive. I was spoiled by the fact that In Sword, the nonmagical people were complicated, bad-tempered and vain, but also insecure and pitiable — the author had a soft heart for them.

  17. Icepick said,

    Karen, I haven’t read the books,but I’ve seen most of the movies. (At times they’re on TV almost as often as the Pirates of the Carribean movies, or the LotR movies.) I just saw the fifth one for the first time a couple of weeks ago. My wife warned me that I would find it … disturbing. She was right. Forget He Who Must Not Be Named, that shrew that took over Hogwarts was the real fright. Unfortunately, I knew far too many people like that in the educational system. That movie really made me uncomfortable!

  18. karen said,

    The books are so much better, Ice. The shrew of a Professor Umbridge(sounds like a word made up by a Palin:0)) comes back in the books just as pretentiously horrible.

    My really good friend finds the subject matter of the witch/wizard setting very evil. I’ve tried to see her point of view, but i can only see the good/evil battles and the widardry of it all pretty harmless. Maybe what the book lacks in my ability to see emotion and the film being short on info- the two together are the answer to understanding the whole of it?

  19. michael reynolds said,

    I don’t think the problem is with wizardry but aristocracy. Rowling may be Labor but her writing is strictly Tory. It’s still 18th century in the HP universe — the hereditary aristos like Harry still need to guide the poor, simple Muggle peasants.

    Rowling is fantastically inventive. A+ in imagination and milieu creation. Her prose is solid, call it a B. Her plotting sucks balls, C-. I’ve never seen a writer more reliant on McGuffins. Characters? They’re indelible, iconic, but the forelock-tugging irritates me and makes me not like Harry.

  20. Maxwell James said,

    Agree, belatedly, with MR’s praise & critique of the Potter books. There are some better epic fantasies out there, but I don’t think there are many better for kids. Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain is probably the closest in sustained quality; I also really liked the L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time & Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, though I haven’t revisited either in a long time. The Sword in the Stone is wonderful, but the rest of White’s chronicle flagged for me.

    Karen, if you haven’t seen it before you may be interested in this essay. The author basically argues for a Catholic interpretation of the HP books.

  21. Maxwell James said,

    Er, busted link – essay is here:

  22. amba12 said,

    The Sword in the Stone is wonderful, but the rest of White’s chronicle flagged for me.

    For me, too. He wrote the rest later, revised Sword (to its detriment) to fit with it. I had no use for all that.

  23. karen said,

    This is a late comment, i know– but, never too late to say ~Thank you!~ to Maxwell.

    In reading that essay, i kept thinking- Catholics don’t believe in the Rapture, how can it argue for Catholicism w/in this frame? Paydirt at the end, eh?

    This? I found it really ewwwwie, Maxwell- in a funny kinda way:0):

    “You’re tense,” she said.

    “Aren’t you?”

    “Relax, love. Messiah is coming.”

    I think it was the empasis on choices that was my favourite theme in the HPbooks– “it’s not how you are alike, Harry- it’s how you are different” and the failing effort of Voldemort to occupy Harry’s body(soul) when his heart was so full of the emotion of love. All these images really resound w/me, they spark goodness.

  24. Maxwell James said,

    Glad you liked it, Karen.

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