Sunday, December 6, 2009

Generational Divide

New Yorkers are divided by class, race, and ethnicity. Teaching English Composition to a multiethnic and multiracial group of students, most of them foreign-born, I was struck by the sharp generational divide.
In class we examined ads for Amnesty International. One showed two African refugee girls, possibly child soldiers, holding machine guns. They were looking straight into the camera with solemn eyes. Below the photograph there was blue sky and the words “imagine” and “nothing to kill or die for.” I worried that my students might not know Amnesty International, John Lennon’s famous song or John Lennon. I wanted to play the song for them, but—technologically stuck in the last century— I owned the record, not the CD. I couldn’t figure out how to download the song to my computer or how to create an MP 3 file.
My students, 17 to 20 years old, knew nothing of Amnesty International and its mission, but they were touched by the photo and in favor of protecting the dignity and rights of all people. None of them had heard the John Lennon song before; three or four knew who John Lennon was. “That Beatle with the funny glasses,” one student said. “He lived near Central Park and was murdered by a deranged fan,” another said.
We discussed the role that images play in our lives. My students — mostly computer science and engineering majors — didn't mind being visually bombarded all the time. They didn’t think it was wrong that more Americans get their news from TV than from newspapers. They thought it was awesome that they could take a photo with their iPhone and instantly send it to their cousins in Ghana, the Philippines, or Korea. One boy made fun of his mother who still writes real letters to her sister in Colombia.
“Maybe your mother’s sister does not own a computer,” I said.
“My mother is forty-five,” José said. “Too old to figure out e-mail.”
I tried to defend his mother; I tried to make a case for handwriting. “A handwritten letter is so much more personal,” I said.
My students didn’t think so.
“Do you want to get a love letter or condolence letter by e-mail?” I asked. “Sure,” they said. “That’s the best way of sending anything.”
Declining book sales and folding newspapers worry me. “Will computer screens replace books as our dominant way of reading?” I asked.
“No one will read books any longer,” Pram said. “We’ll all have a Kindle or one of those devices.”
“It's better for the environment. Think of how many trees we save,” Nicola said.
“Books will become extinct like dinosaurs in no time,” Mamandou added.
I felt as if a soccer ball had hit my stomach. “How soon?” I asked.
“Ten years,” someone in the back of the room shouted.
“No way, I’ll give it six,” Mamandou said.
The class nodded in agreement. Ten years was too long of a time. It was so much more convenient to read on a computer screen. They didn't need libraries. They didn’t need books. They had the Internet! I was shocked and saddened. I love books. I love to touch them, smell them, turn their pages, and feel their weight in my hands. Opening a book for the first time is as exciting as falling for a new lover.
I left class and walked down the stairs of Shepard Hall with slumped shoulders. They are the future, I thought. Did that make me, at 55, a proud member of the international family of book lovers, an endangered species? I tried to picture the literary events and readings I attended recently. My students were wrong. People still loved literature! I thought about my favorite place in Manhattan, the Center for Fiction (formally the Mercantile Library) that holds the largest fiction collection in the entire United States. Every time I walk into the Midtown mansion, I am greeted by beautiful old wooden file cabinets. I love to pull out the handwritten index cards and hunt for a book. The place smells like a library.
I had met younger people, readers and writers there, didn't I?
I concentrated hard to re-create the last reading in my mind’s eye. A famous writer and not too many people in the audience. Half the chairs were empty. The average visitor, like me, was middle-aged and female.
What if my students are right?