Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Joys of Reading

Recently, my esteemed colleague, Dr. Keith Huey, commented that in addition to the praise of television, video games, and film that I do here, I should comment on the effect that today's media-centered culture has on young people's writing ability. It is an interesting phenomenon. Kids today are actually writing more than ever before and probably reading more than ever before -- they are just not reading and writing literature. Everyday they are reading and writing webpages, email, blogs, text messages, chat room conversations. The good side of that is that they are reading and writing. The downside is that the content of what they read and write tends to be fragmentary, colloquial, and grammatically challenged.

Many students write the way they talk. Since so many today "talk" through email and text messages, those formats are beginning to effect the kinds of college papers they hand in. The result is that many young people, because they are not exercising all of their literary muscles, are losing the ability to follow a narrative thread for any distance or to engage a complex and multi-layered literary world

I spend a lot of time on this blog heralding good television and other contemporary forms of media. Much of the reason for that is that these media forms have often gotten a bad rap. Yet, what is really needed is a balanced diet of media -- one that includes a healthy portion of reading among the portions of games, television shows, and such.

As much as I love good television, video games, and movies, I love reading even more. I am sure that is because I grew up in a family of readers (and oddly enough, the one person who didn't read very much, my mother, owned a book store). In fact, my siblings and I have started an annual competition to see who can read the most in a year. My sister won last year and appears to be the front runner this year as well.

So I've decided that with the year coming to a close and everyone reflecting back, I will provide a short list of the ten best books I read this past year. I have tried to make the list diverse. I read several books by some authors like Barry Eisler, Stephen King, Lee Child and others, all of whom could have easily had more than one book on the list. As it is, the only person with more than one is Stephen King, because the second selection is a collection of short stories and so quite different from the other entry. Anyway, here's my list, for what it's worth. I hope you've read enough books this year to make your own top ten list. Happy Reading!

10. State of Fear by Michael Crichton

A controversial and intriguing study of global warming hysteria in the context of an action novel.

9. Chasing the Dime by Michael Connolly

A man moves into a new apartment and suddenly begins receiving phone calls for the apartment's former resident, a girl named Lilly. Intrigued, he sets off to learn more about her and as a result is drawn into a world of intrigue and murder.

8. The Narnian by Alan Jacobs

A solid and easily accessible biography of C. S. Lewis. Really helps one get inside Lewis' imagination.

7. The Store by Bentley Little

The Store, a transparent Wal-Mart clone, moves into a small town and begins to take over, slowly and insidiously. This book is part horror story, part social satire.

6. Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

I read the last three books in Stephen King's series The Dark Tower this past year, but this was my favorite of the three.

5. Everything Bad is Good For You by Steven Johnson

I've said a lot about this book already in other posts, so here I'll just reiterate that it is one of the best assessments of popular culture that I've read.

4. Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz

On the day of Jimmy Tock's birth, his dying grandfather predicts five terrible days in the life of his grandson -- and provides the specific dates. This set up sounds like a recipe for a dark and depressing book, but Koontz writes it with a humorous flair that carries the reader along for an entertaining ride.

3. Killing Floor by Lee Child

The first book in Lee Child's fabulous series about an ex-MP who constantly seems to find himself in new and dangerous situations. In this book, he makes an unplanned stop in Margrave, Georgia and almost immediately is arrested for murder.

2. Rain Fall by Barry Eisler

Likewise, this is the first book in Eisler's series about a half-American, half-Japanese assassin who specializes in making his kills look like accidents. Eisler writes with a captivating eye for detail.

1. Everything's Eventual by Stephen King

This is one of King's collections of short stories (fourteen in this volume, I believe). Usually such collections are hit and miss, but this one has surprisingly few duds and even includes one of the more unnerving haunted room stories you'll ever read, simply titled "1408."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Media Morality

I have a theory. How many times have we heard people complain that television or film was so much better "in the old days"? As Steven Johnson points out in his book Everything Bad is Good For You, what they usually mean by this is that it was simpler in a moral sense. Right and wrong was clearly defined (and the wrong rarely depicted). Moral choices were clear cut if not always easy to make. Sex, violence, and profanity were kept to a minimum. The moral landscape of entertainment media today, of course, looks much more rugged. Sex, violence and profanity are rampant and moral ambiguity rules the day.

The standard explanation given for this by moralists and Christians is that the entertainment media is determined to destroy the moral fabric of our nation and panders to the lowest common denominator. This feeds into the culture war mentality that dominates much of the discussion. Without doubt, there is some pandering to the lowest common denominator going on (Temptation Island, anyone?).

But I think something more significant is going on. Steven Johnson, in his book, doesn't address the morality of media other than in a few tangential comments. His focus is on the intellectual benefits of television, video games, etc. His theory is that over the last two decades, these media have grown increasingly complex and mentally challenging. Compare Lost to Gunsmoke or today's Battlestar Galactica to the 1970's version and it's like comparing Dostoevsky to Dr. Seuss.

My theory is that what is happening with the intellectual landscape of entertainment media is the same thing happening to the moral landscape. As television, for instance, becomes more intellectually complex, it simultaneously grows more morally complex. Creators of media have grown less content with the presentation of clear cut moral choices and instead want to explore intellectually and emotionally the grey areas between. Although it has its downsides in particular instances, this is not necessarily a bad thing as a whole. Christians do a disservice to others and to themselves when they present moral choices as simplistic and obvious. The entertainment media is initiating a profound conversation about morality in our culture and rather than standing outside and criticizing, Christians should become a partner in that conversation.