Thursday, February 08, 2007

Reading, Edutainment, Comics, and Audiobooks

Perhaps in the past couple of days, I’ve been pushing my thesis that people do read. It just so happens that they don’t read books or rather novels. And this is a more striking phenomenon rather than simply stating that people don’t read altogether. Why do people read other stuff but not novels? In my opinion there are two reasons. The first is that novels are intimidating. People can imagine themselves reading one sheet of paper but not four hundred pages from a book. It seems too out of their league. It’s the second reason, however, that I think is the more significant factor: novels don’t appear to be entertaining. For me the second part is the key because once you’ve solved that problem, the first won’t become too much of a problem. Yes, it’ll still be there, but the cliché is where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Not too long ago, the term edutainment was termed. It’s basically fusing education and entertainment. Personally, for me novels are more of the latter rather than the former, but the misconception is that books are supposed to educate. I don’t think some books are so much educational as much as they are boring, at least initially. (Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s lots of things that can be learned from novels. It’s just that their message is left to the reader to decide rather than some textbook simply stating out the facts for you.) Some people say that’s where edutainment comes in: by producing something that’s both education and entertaining, not just simply one or the other. Of course it’s not a perfect theory. Those against it claim that a lot of knowledge isn’t supposed to come out as entertainment. And to a certain point it’s true. If one only keeps reading the books that they’ll find entertaining, they’ve limited themselves to what they can learn. The best example is simply reading books of one genre: you’re limiting yourself to the myriad of possibilities. And this goes for the people who scoff at genre books too, who simply insist on reading just “fiction”. But in terms of getting people to start reading, edutainment seems like a good method as any.

Of course having said that, I don’t think we should limit ourselves to reading books. There are a lot of other venues for reading, one that espouses edutainment. At the simplest level, we can take the formula of children’s books: words and pictures. Honestly between the two, as children, the latter frequently has more appeal. And while some people, as they become older, do learn to appreciate the former, pictures do hold a certain appeal. In my opinion, in adult reading, this best comes out in magazines. Photos and illustrations augment the articles. And perhaps more importantly, the pictures pique your curiosity with regards to the article at best, or at worst simply gives you some breathing room between the blocks of text. I grew up reading magazines instead of books which is why I think it’s a good vehicle to promote reading. And the best part is that there’s lots of magazines of various subject matters, from science to music to nature. That’s not to say that all magazines are good reading—like most things, some are bad but some are similarly good. And perhaps the same rule about books applies to magazines: don’t judge it by its cover (or content). I mean people joke about Playboy magazine: we don’t read it for the articles. But you’d be surprised at the actual articles Playboy has. Or its fiction. The likes of Harlan Ellison and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. have published stories in Playboy. So you should think twice before gasping in disbelief that people actually purchase Playboy for the articles.

The second avenue I’m proposing will perhaps shock conservatives. Strangely, my youth was filled with reading thanks to video games as well and it’s perhaps more relevant now that two decades ago. I say that not because of the proliferation of video games but because of the proliferation of RPGs. Anyone who’s played an RPG, whether on the console or on the PC, will realize that the game has huge blocks of text. I read in a magazine once that RPGs were once termed as interactive novels. And it does have elements of novels: dialogue between characters, plot, and sometimes even a long exposition. Of course right now the RPG genre is changing, thanks to MMORPGs which is changing the dynamic. But that’s another subject matter altogether. Of course it’s not just RPGs when I talk about video games and reading. There’ve been games wherein reading has been pivotal, especially from PC games like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island. Again, I’m not saying that all video games encourage reading, but there’s a couple of them that do. And perhaps what makes them appealing is because the reader isn’t merely a spectator but rather seems to take an active hand in plotting the course of the story.

The last fact about video games I think is why back in the day, the Choose Your Own Adventure line were successful. They were books that, aside from the fact were easy reading, had a level of interaction between the story and the reader. You were the hero in the book, not just following somebody else’s journey. And to a beginning reader, I think it’s an important point. It’s perhaps why some people play video games—so they can transpose themselves into someone heroic. And perhaps the best part of the Choose Your Own Adventure line and its derivatives was that it had replay value—we could reread the book over and over again and it’ll still be enjoyable and fresh (an aspect which is now the trend in most video games).

In case you didn’t notice, games are a great way to promote reading, simply because the main point of a game is that it’s fun. Perhaps if reading could be presented in such a method, a lot more people would be interested in reading. Take for example the reality TV show The Amazing Race. A lot of reading goes on, from navigating maps, poring over travel guides, interpreting signs, or simply looking for clues. What makes it all worth it is that it’s a game (well, the cash prize is lucrative too…). Perhaps some of the contestants would even be motivated to learn a new language, either because it will be relevant to the competition, or their curiosity was piqued thanks to an experience they had in the game. Simply put, reading in such an environment is sheer fun.

Some people might point out to me an obvious alternative: comics. Of course as much as I am a fan of comics and manga, I’d also like people to stress the importance that comics are no substitute for novels. Are they great vehicles for reading? Yes. And as much as I’m all for looking for alternative sources of reading such as video games and magazines, they aren’t the same as reading a book. That’s not to say that novels are superior to say, magazines, video games, and comics. All I’m saying is that they’re different mediums, each with its own strengths and limitations. As for comics, its nature varies. Some can end up being as wordy as any book (whether that’s a good or a bad thing, I’m leaning more towards the latter). On the other hand, I’ve seen comics with no words at all (except for the title). More likely however it runs somewhere in between. But the fact of the matter is, comics aren’t novels. Take for example a mystery story. If it were fiction, one could easily write it from the murderer’s perspective without giving away the identity of the murderer. If this were to be done in comics, we’d either reveal the murderer or transform him into a silhouette, which I don’t think is an effective method. Then there’s the inner voice of the character. In fiction, this would be simple. In comics, you’d end up with a comic with either too many word balloons or narrative boxes. Of course you can also play up the strengths of comics. In fiction, you might give something away to the reader by describing each and every item in the crime scene, giving more importance to some and giving less details to others. In comics, you can easily have an entire page of art portraying the crime scene. Keen readers will either find the clues there or they won’t without giving too much away. But again, the senses being stimulated are different. For fiction, it’s more of our “textual” senses. For comics, it’s both our textual senses and our visual senses or at least some proportion of both.

Having said that, comics is nonetheless a great platform to motivate people to start reading. Much like the children’s book formula, comics has both images and text although a good comic should be able to use one to complement the other rather than a mere substitute. One should also be aware of the diversity of comics—it’s simply not limited to children as depending on the publisher (especially in Europe and Japan), it can cover a lot of subject matter ranging from simple to complex.

Finally is the subject of audio books. They’ve been around for quite some time now, usually in the form of self-help and business books, but novels are starting to get the audio book treatment too. I’m not too confident about my assessment on audio books because I’m relatively unfamiliar with them but I’ll take a stab at it. For me the biggest advantage of audio books is that it’s a time-saver: I can listen to audio books while doing other activities that keep me preoccupied from reading, such as driving a car, jogging, or simply resting my eyes. Whether this can be used to encourage reading I’m not sure. Listening to audio books, after all, is simply just that: listening. Personally, I retain more of what I read than what I hear so I’m not so sure about the effectiveness of listening to audio books. Maybe it’s an acquired skill. It’s a great tool to practice active listening however. The closest contribution I can think of is that hopefully people will be interested in the subject matter that they’ll pick up the actual book. But that generalization applies to a lot of things, including adaptations of novels, be it movies, comics, and video games.

Then there’s the idea of thinking audio books are a substitute for books. They’re not. Sure, you get the same story but again, it’s different senses. Reading is more of a textual sense while audio books are more of an aural sense. Again, neither is more superior to the other, they’re simply just different. Although perhaps less so with audio books. Because unlike the other aural mediums such as radio, which is specifically designed for the listening medium, audio books are perhaps best described as adaptations of existing novels. They work great for self-help and business books because most of them involves stating facts and telling the listener (of course they also lose out on the occasional diagram but…) but for fiction, it’s a different atmosphere depending on the writer. Of course audio books play to its medium’s strengths as well: you don’t just get anybody to read out loud a book. One listens (at least theoretically) to an eloquent speaker who can deliver the lines with right inflection and tone. But it’s similarly not a radio drama either where various roles are picked up by different actors and actresses. In an audio book, most likely you’re just dealing with one speaker, pretty much in the same way your parents might read to a child a children’s book. I think my one biggest complaint about audio books is that it’s a passive act (which, again, isn’t a bad thing but is a big point of contention when it comes to reading novels vs listening to them via an audio book). Reading, for example, begins and ends with the reader. If I stop reading, the reading simply stops. With audio books, I can probably choose not to make sense of what I hear and merely relegate it to as mere “noise” but the audio book will go on playing. In some cases, I just need to listen with minimum effort to understand the story. In some cases, I’ll need to use more active listening skills. So the two aren’t exactly interchangeable although audio books do serve their purpose if what you’re interested in is simply getting the gist of a story or if you prefer to have our stories read to you.

Reading, I think, doesn’t have to be boring, at least not at first. I’ll be honest: I’ve read lots of books and eventually, I’ll come across a good book that has either dragging or boring parts. But I read them anyway. Perseverance is a skill I developed through reading. But I think the important part is that not every reading experience should be like this. Read what you want to read and eventually you graduate to some of the more tougher material. Edutainment is a fine mentality to live by but like most things, if we simply stick to that one philosophy, we’ve limited our growth. Of course having said that, it’s also a good thing to branch out. Reading is not the be-all and end-all of life. As much as I want people to cultivate their textual sense, I’d expect people should cultivate their other intelligences as well. It could be musical sensitivity, aesthetic appreciation, physical fitness, or some other aspect. But perhaps the beauty of reading is that it can be applied to all those things too: I might read about an urban adventure, satiate both my visual and textual appetites with comics, or engross my aural and poetic sense with music and its lyrics.

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