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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Question Four: Will people still want to read? That is, will they still want to learn new ideas?

A bigger question— the one that I think is really much more important—is, will people still want to read?

By reading I mean the kind of intellectual effort that the book and the scroll catered to (as do audio CDs, dramatic readings, and dramatizations that are faithful to the text).

I mean prolonged exposure to a complex and significant idea.

You see, the other popular piece of after-dinner punditry that I want to challenge tonight is: "People will always want to read."

Will they?

Usually, when I hear something like that, I ask myself a simple question: Has it always been so? A thing that has always so will likely continue to be. It's a bet you can accept.

But that is not the case with reading, I am afraid.

The habit of reading as a normal activity for ordinary people is relatively recent. Yes, at one time books had to be copied by hand and only rich people could own them.

But that's only half the picture. We tend not to notice the other half.

The other half is that - for the most part - for thousands of years after writing was invented, most people were not rioting in the streets because they lacked access to books.

They were happy with ballads, lays, and old wives' tales, with stained glass windows and statues, with street drama and mystery plays, and with oral tradition in the various branches of knowledge that were considered important.

When the Bible became a focus of religious fervor, the only book most families owned was a Bible. And that was the only book they thought they needed to own.

There is considerable virtue in such a view, but if followed today it would extinguish the career of almost everyone in this room.

Next: Question Five: And so now ... ?

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, coming to Canada as the Expelled movie, read:

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