I got a letter the other day. I don't mean an e-mail, I mean an actual, pen-on-paper letter. (Yes, it was handwritten.) Someone who had read one of my books, and who (as she says) does not use the Internet managed to contact my old publisher, who, in turn, managed to track me down and send the letter on.
I confess, I sat there looking at the letter with a feeling that can only be described as bewilderment. What, I found myself wondering, do I do with this? In the age of instant e-mail communication, the process of writing out a letter, addressing an envelope, affixing postage, and mailing it off all seemed so... so... dare I say it... antiquated!
This, from a woman who still knows how to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner, from turkey to pie, on a wood-burning stove...
It was little more than ten years ago that I answered such letters on a daily basis, all using that same (shudder) antiquated method that has served correspondents for so long. I have nearly half a file box of such letters in a closet downstairs (in the fond hope that, one day, there will be a demand for "the collected letters of Moira Allen"). And yet, while the thought of writing a letter "the old-fashioned way" seems antiquated to me, I find that much of the electronic world has already moved beyond me. I have no interest in creating a Facebook page, and when someone had to explain "twittering" to me the other day, my reaction was not "cool!" but "why???" I can survive for more than ten minutes at a time without announcing to some faceless friend on a cell-phone that I'm in the grocery store, studying the options in the milk aisle. And to prove that I am indeed the ultimate electronic fogey, I have to look at the keys on my cell phone to send a text message.
Now, the typical reaction of those of us who suddenly discover that we are becoming dinosaurs (and it can happen very quickly these days!) is to start bemoaning the future of the world -- or, if we happen to be writers, the future of literacy. How often have we heard that the kids who are growing up today with text and twitters and tweets just can't be bothered to read anything longer (or properly spelled)? The Internet, we've been gravely informed, is changing how the next generation reads and expects to read, and soon such saurian modes of communication as "linear text (i.e., stories with a beginning, a middle and an end), literary style, and anything we would refer to as "good writing" will be history.
Well... As the song in the musical Shenandoah goes, "I've heard it all, a thousand times, I've heard it all before..." One of the advantages to being a dinosaur is that it means one has been around for awhile. And I, like (I imagine) many of you, have been around long enough to have heard many a doom-and-gloom prediction about the "death of reading" and the "end of literacy." In my day, television was the culprit; kids growing up in the television age, we were warned, would never become readers. Television spelled the end of literacy (and spelled it badly). Before television, I have no doubt that radio was touted as the doom of literature, and before that -- well, quite probably, strolling players.
News flash: Most kids don't read! Think about it. I'm guessing that if you're a writer today, you were probably an avid reader in your youth. So cast your mind back to your classroom, or playground, or wherever the kids of your day hung out. How many of them, like you, were "bookworms"? How many of them understood why you spent so much time with your nose in a book? How many of them felt that the school library was the best place to hang out during your lunch hour? We readers were a rare breed (and, oddly, hardly even spent that much time talking to each other, even if we were to find others like ourselves).
Much as we dinosaurs like to hark back to the "good old days," I suspect that if we had a talk with our parents and grandparents, we'd learn that things were much the same. I've just finished reading a charming Victorian story (Victorian magazines are my new addiction) in which one of the characters, the son of a shepherd, has a consuming desire to read and learn -- a desire that is baffling to his friends and family, who can't understand why someone would rather stick his nose in a book than herd sheep. As they say, the more things change, etc. etc...
The fact is, throughout history, most kids manage to find something to do other than read. Before television, it might be games and sports and just general "playing outdoors." In my day (you can tell you're turning into a dinosaur when you can blithely write lines like "in my day"!), even though TV was popular, the other kids still found plenty of other things to do, like chatting on the phone (the kind with a dial and a cord), playing outside, hanging out in the mall, and so forth. Reading wasn't last on the list because of all those other activities. It was last on the list because, to most of my schoolmates, it was just one step above ditch-digging as a favorite activity.
And yet... And yet... Good books survive. They endure. They even thrive. And they are still being produced, by the multitude. When was the last time you walked into a bookstore and sighed, "Oh, dear, literacy must be on the decline... there's just nothing here to read!"? (My husband shudders and gropes reflexively for his wallet every time I walk into a bookstore...)
Why? Because, Gentle Reader (as the Victorians might have said), we are not writing for the TV generation. We are not writing for the texters and tweeters. We are writing for those who, like us, bear the scorn of their peers as they choose a book over the chance to sit on a bench in the mall with one set of friends while texting or chatting to a completely different set of friends. We are writing for those who, generation after generation, make the discovery that there are worlds to be found in books that one can never visit via cell-phone or text or tweet.
In every generation, we may feel as if we are an isolated few -- and yet, we few are enough to keep that love of books and literature and just plain "great words" alive. We may, indeed, be dinosaurs -- but despite the words of doom and gloom, we are dinosaurs who are, in fact, in no danger of extinction. In fact, feeling like a dinosaur can actually be a good feeling!
Now if I can just figure out how to answer that letter...