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The iPad And Literacy

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By Doug Thompson

You can put an iPad in a purse or use one in the stall in a men’s room, I noted a couple of weeks ago. These were key features, I said then, and I wasn’t even half joking.

Lately a friend of mine who owns one advised me that you can find a place for one on many types of exercise equipment. With care — and without the recharger plugged in — she’d even used one while she was in the bathtub.

Then she showed me the feature on her iPad where you turn on “night reading.” The page of a book she’d downloaded turned black with white, very legible type. My first thought was that this would allow me to sit up and read in bed without turning on a light, even a book light.

Then she touched a word on the page and up popped a definition of it.

Folks, we’re talking about a major boon to literacy here.

You hear a lot of talk about “post-literate” society, a society where most information is received through sound or images. That may yet come to pass, but I submit the iPad is a weapon that can prolong the resistance.

I don’t know how good the iPad’s selection of books is, but I bet it’s better than many a local library. You have to pay to download an iPad book, but I wonder how far off the idea of an iPad lending library can be.

We may soon be able to, within reason, read any book we want.

Some very serious-minded people believe that digital media offers escapism and fantasy that undermines people’s ability to live and cope with the real world. They may be right. However, I look at the iPad and I see things going in a better direction — and I don’t even own one.

People are addicted to amusement, we’re warned. OK. When were we not?

Julius Caesar presided over public games before he was a famous general. If I remember my history right, he once flooded the floor of a public arena so they could have a naval battle there instead of just another old gladiator fight. He also went heavily into debt during that time, if I recall correctly.

You can read in Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” about public obsession with games. The worst case involves a city in Greece where the people formed a mob to break a popular charioteer out of prison after he was arrested for raping children. Then there was the matter of the two rival political factions who vied for power in much of the empire: the Greens and the Blues. The distinction between them? Some were fans of a particular athlete in the games. The other consisted of fans of his rival. The athletes that formed these divisions varied from one town to the next.

Compared to most of our predecessors, we’re a serious-minded, studious bunch of folks.

People should also remember that Shakespeare was extremely popular back in the day. So was Homer, the writers of great Greek tragedy, Leo Tolstoy and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Bad stuff falls by the wayside. Culture is, for instance, a book that’s still read a couple of hundred years or more after its written. Those can come from anywhere. In a digital age, they can’t be destroyed or lost. The bad stuff can’t be destroyed or lost either — but will be ignored. How many “landmark” books or films have you heard about in your lifetime that no one much remembers today?

Those who want escapism will always find it. Those who want knowledge or high art will always find it too — or make it. It seems absurd to me to talk about the decline of culture when I can, within reason, read any book from a wide selection of languages at any time, anywhere.

I also can, within reason, write a book and offer it as a free download from a web page of mine. It may not be any good, but I don’t have to have some publisher’s permission to offer it to the public.

Maybe we are descending into an age of dithering and dissipation. We’ll see. For now, I prefer to believe we are on the cusp of a golden age.

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