The Cortland Review


John Tranter
An interview and poetry. Guy Shahar talks with Australian poet John Tranter.

Bruce Canwell
Writers on Writing 3: Preserving our Future.

Bruce Canwell

Writers On Writing 3
Preserving our Future


Travel back with me into the not-so-distant past...

It is now only a week before the release of the animated feature film Anastasia. I am en route to Boston with one of my best friends, who tells me his daughter is wrestling with the question of whether to see this or The Little Mermaid, which Disney plans to re-release on precisely the same day; I ask my friend to predict how young Justine will solve this cinematic conundrum.

"Oh, she’ll go with Anastasia," he replies, confidence in his tone. "She can always watch Little Mermaid on videotape." And a light bulb goes off over my head. . .

Before we examine that light bulb and its glow, let’s go back still further, to my boyhood days of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the only way to savor a story again and again was through printed material –– books, magazines, comics. Once a movie left the theaters, or a television series was dropped, there was no way to recapture it –– nothing but the memories remained. Print and print alone offered the delights of revisitation: the ability to read was a magic key, and kids used it on a whim to unlock the worlds of Tom and Huck, Batman and Doc Savage, James Bond and Tarzan and scores of other familiar fictional friends.

Now fast-forward to the light bulb clicking on for me –– that was the moment I realized that the VCR and computer had obliterated the paradigms of my youth. Videotape allows toddlers to watch Barney, the Disney characters, Bugs Bunny, Casper, and others literally hundreds of times before they’re capable of holding a book, much less reading it. For these kids, entertainment-on-demand is no longer tied to the mastery of "See Jane. See Spot," it is practically their birthright. That means, to many youngsters today, reading is no magic key –– it is, in fact, nothing special, simply a skill learned in school, like the multiplication tables. And when were multiplication tables ever any fun?

As writers, this state of affairs should be cause for both concern and action. We believe in the worth of the scrawl; we yearn for the opportunity to enrich the lives of others through the words we create, much as a lifetime spent reading our favorite authors has enriched us. To insure us that opportunity, writers must be in the vanguard of introducing the youngest generation to The Wonder Of Reading.

Of course, there is a question we should first address: "Does reading still possess Wonder in today’s high-tech society?" I would answer in the affirmative for a handful of reasons:

(1) Reading is interactive. It requires involvement and participation while film and videotape encourage simple, slack-jawed receptivity. Reading not only sharpens and improves the mind, it nurtures independent thinking, a skill increasingly rare in this sharing, caring, co-dependent society.

(2) Reading offers a depth of materials, topics, and styles neither movies nor computers can match. Computer applications and games may offer a degree of interactivity, but they also they tend to be limited in scope. And would Moby Dick or War And Peace be considered classics if they existed only in their feature film incarnations?

(3) Reading can be done anytime, anywhere. To paraphrase the late Dr. Isaac Asimov: wouldn’t it be marvelous if we invented a cassette that could allow access to the accumulated stories and knowledge of the world, a cassette small enough to be held in one’s hand, requiring no peripherals or outside power source? Answering his own question, Asimov pointed out that we have already invented such a miraculous product – it is called "a book."

If we conclude there is still Wonder attached to the art of reading, how do we impart that Wonder to kids? For those youngsters who can already read, we must insure they have access to books and magazines. For those who can’t, we must read to them.

I have no children of my own, but I have two nieces and a nephew. Whenever I send them Christmas or birthday presents I always make sure one of their gifts is a book; not only does this encourage their parents to read to them, on those (all too infrequent, alas) occasions when I visit it gives me a chance to ask if I can read to them. My four-year-old niece is now in the habit of coming to me, book in hand, without being asked; I like to think her younger brother and cousin will follow suit when they reach her age.

Writers cannot expect their offspring, their nephews and nieces, or their other youthful relatives to grow up appreciating their work unless they read to these children and, in later years, encourage them to read on their own.

There is more than can be done, of course. Those who have the time can expand their efforts beyond their families: they can volunteer to work in a literacy program, or visit high schools and junior highs to talk about a writer’s life, or start a storytime at the nearest library or bookseller willing to host such a program.

Naturally, many of us don’t have that time –– we’re too busy working day jobs, writing at night, and trying to carve out a sliver of leisure time to avoid the traps of "all work and no play." Those constraints may prevent us from becoming a school lecturer or literacy volunteer, but they do not prevent us from finding ways to help get printed materials into the hands of children. Are the bookstores in your town lacking a fondly-remembered book from your childhood? Ask them to stock it, and don’t be afraid to show them your enthusiasm (enthusiasm is contagious)! Does your library subscribe to Highlights For Children, Boys’ Life, or Humpty Dumpty? Ask if they would accept your gift subscription for one of those magazines.

At the very least, why not invest $25 a year on childrens’ reading materials (that’s the equivalent of three or four items bought during a bookstore sale, or a dozen comics fresh off the newsstand), then donate them to hospitals, libraries, schools, orphanages, youth centers, or other places where they can be read and enjoyed by a variety of kids? Some of them are sure to realize this stuff is so cool they just have to get more. . .

Those are my ideas. I’m sure there are many, many others as good, if not better. For those of us who want to keep the label "Writer" from becoming a mere job classification within spirit-crushing multinational corporations, where teams of well-meaning hacks grind out work-for-hire computer games or videotaped product, it is imperative we act on these ideas, not just talk about them –– because especially for writers, especially today, children are our future.


Next Installment: Writers on Writing 4: An Empty Moment in Time - How Not to Write


� 2002 The Cortland Review