A month ago my 14-year-old daughter bought a television with $85 she’d earned walking a neighbor’s dog.
The good mom part of my brain (and the part of my brain that is a writer) banged pots and pans and screamed what are you doing, letting her put a TV in her room? Don’t you CARE about her at all?
But Ruby had earned and saved her own money. She’s a straight A student, plays two sports and the clarinet, all of which she (almost) never complains about practicing.
There was no good reason to say no. So her dad took her to Walmart and her brother gave her an old Roku, and she was all set.
It turns out that I didn’t need to worry. She has not watched it. Not at all, in a month.
Turns out she likes her tablet better — and somehow she knows that without even turning the TV on. I asked if she wanted to return it, but she said no. She’ll use it to play games. Eventually.
While I was wringing my hands over whether or not I should allow her to have a television in her room — my kid was watching Youtube and Netflix on her knock-off iPad.
It isn’t that I didn’t know that she was connecting online that way. I did. It’s more that she’s taking in stories in a way that barely registers with me as story digestion.
I wasn’t allowed to have a television in my bedroom when I was a kid in the 1980s. My mother thought it would rot my brain. TV wasn’t even a thing until well after she was born, but her parents probably were concerned that reading comic books would rot her brain.
I read the other day that Edith Wharton’s mother made her swear not to read a novel until after she was married. She was worried that novels would rot her daughter’s brain.
This whole thing reminded me of a debate I hear often, as a writer and a teacher. Sometimes it seems like everyone is convinced that kids don’t read anymore.
I don’t want to debate whether or not watching TV is bad for you, or whether or not it’s better than reading. I’m a novelist. Clearly, I am team Books Rock.
But even more than that, I am team Stories are Essential to the Human Existence. When I hear kids don’t read anymore, my first thought is but what about stories?
Kids are getting stories. They just aren’t always getting them the same way I did (or do.) Like I said, they’re often getting them in a way that doesn’t even register with my poor Gen X brain.
Stories have been a part of the human experience forever.
Since long before anyone had even the glimmer of an idea of a book. Stories were how ancient people passed down information and entertained themselves.
Stories matter to people. Not some people. All people. All the people there have ever been.
Stories are rebellion, especially when you’re young. I stole my mother’s trashy romance novels when I was twelve. I read The Flowers in the Attic in huge part because I knew that my parents wouldn’t approve.
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No matter how many books I surround her with and how much I try to entice her to pick up a novel, my eighth grader doesn’t pick a book for pleasure nearly as often as I wish she would.
She’s a product of her generation, the same as I am, and she likes her stories to be very visual and delivered in shorter bursts. Whether or not that’s good for her is a different question. What’s clear is that’s how it is.
What I do know for sure is that stories still matter. And they always will.
Kids still seek them out. That’s why Youtubers go viral and why Wattpad.com has 70 million monthly readers and why so many kids love graphic novels.
On a slightly different note, I think that there’s something exciting about the idea that maybe kids are making up more of their own stories than earlier generations have.
We can argue later whether or not fan fiction counts as art.
(For the record, I think it does. It’s very similar to the way an art student sits with a sketch book in front of a masterpiece to learn how to draw.)
Books are a delivery system for information.
If the apocalypse happens today and no plumbers survive, as long as there’s a library left standing someone will be able to figure out how to fix a leaky sink or install a toilet or even plumb an entire building.
For that purpose, books are excellent, but definitely not the only means to an end. I mean, if I’m hiring a plumber, I hope that they’ve had some hands on experience and learned from a teacher (who learned from a teacher, who learned from a teacher . . .)
One reason I knew that Ruby was watching Youtube on her tablet was because she’d used it to teach herself to solve a Rubik's Cube, draw noses, and bake cupcakes.
Books are also a delivery system for stories.
My favorite delivery system, even. There is nothing like a paper book. I love the way the pages feel. I love the way they look on my shelves. I love how I can’t read a book and multitask at the same time.
For the purpose of story digestion, books are excellent. The invention of the printing press in the 14th century changed the world. Before that, the invention of the written world changed it even more.
All because stories are so damned important to human existence.
Once we had a way of recording stories (and information) it wasn’t necessary to depend entirely on an oral tradition. Not long after there was a way to produce those written words that didn’t involve chiseling them into stone or monks hunched over parchments with a quill and ink — books became more widely available to normal people.
And now, 600-ish years later, books are everywhere. You can buy them 10 for a dollar a library sale or for a penny (plus shipping) off Amazon. You can download the Libby app and check ebooks out of your library without leaving your house.
The world’s wealthiest man is a bookseller. The world’s second wealthiest man created the platform where most stories are written.
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Ray Bradbury, whose most famous story is about book burning said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
In his later years, he said that Fahrenheit 451 wasn’t about the government trying to stop us from reading. It was about people stopping themselves from growing by using television as an opiate.
But really, it isn’t the loss of books that destroys a culture. It’s the loss of stories. Even in Fahrenheit 451 the act of burning books was nearly symbolic. Society’s downfall was the death of stories.
I think we can all take a deep breath. The kids will be okay. Stories aren’t going anywhere. Not in 50 years. Not in 50 million years.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.