Thursday, February 07, 2008

Reading Is Still Alive: An Open Letter to Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs and 1984 commercial

Dear Steve,

First: Happy Birthday, today, and thank you for your work in improving the world’s technology. I think that your single greatest contribution to humanity is not the fact that you’ve filled the Earth with cool gadgets. What you’ve done is to make technology simpler, friendlier, easier to use. Nowadays, the average computer-user can do things that might have seemed like wonders to his father and miracles to his grandmother -- all with a minimum of effort and a reasonable expense. And yet ...

The road to hell is paved with good inventions. Our passionate focus on technology -- yours, mine, and virtually everyone’s -- has perhaps distracted us from other essential things. In 1976, Apple Corporation’s logo showed Isaac Newton, sitting under an apple tree, reading a book. In 1984, the company seemed remarkably aware of the dangers of Orwellian governments; and your famous superbowl commercial that year concluded with the words: “And you'll see why 1984 [the year] will not be like [the novel] 1984.”

That novel warned us about government propaganda, where “WAR IS PEACE ... FREEDOM IS SLAVERY ... IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH,” and “... the world is in a state of constant war, no one is free, and everyone is ignorant.” In the pathetic society depicted in Orwell’s novel, conformity has conquered individuality; and reading worthy books is not only impossible, but the value of reading is lost in the sauce of a ceaseless patter of propaganda.

At this point I must freely admit to being an anachronism: I love books, I revere genuine authors, I believe, perhaps naively so, that reading matters, and that reading is still alive. Your recent comments about reading succeeded in getting my attention. (The ‘product’ mentioned is Amazon’s ebook reader, called ‘Kindle’.).

"It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."

Last week, my favorite local bookstore went out of business.
bookstore closed in Ithaca
And nobody can deny the facts that libraries are struggling for financial survival, the entire publishing industry is floundering, and American adults and children are reading less. When you see this kind of problem -- be it the decline of reading, the onslaught of global warming, or the needless growth of world poverty -- do you shut your eyes and say “That’s the way it’s going, that’s the way it must be?” ... Or do you raise your voice and work to make a change? If you know Mr. Dickens, and his story == A Christmas Carol ==, then you can never forget the desperate words of Scrooge, pleading for one chance to transform his selfish world. After he is shown London’s future, and -- most terrifying of all -- his own, the miser shouts:

“Spirit ! Are these the shadows of things that MUST be, or the shadows of things that MAY be, only ? Tell me, Spirit!”

If reading matters to you, then you might “think different” about your response to fact of reading’s decline. Between your dazzling presentations about the world’s thinnest notebooks, and the latest improvements to Leopard and the iPod touch, you might toss in a few words -- enhanced by the Keynote software -- about how and why reading makes a difference. How reading helps to create educated and thinking persons, individuals are immune to fanaticism and prejudice, people who love creativity, and people, and peace.

Still not convinced? ... I'd like to send you a copy of my essay, "The Monster Reads!" (in the anthology, The Ithaca Manual of Style). If I don't hear from you, I'll post the essay on the Web, and upload a free audio version to iTunes.

Steve, I wish you the very best with your important work. And I hope you will enthusiastically join the campaign to dust off the great books, read them with your whole heart and mind, and then bring these books into every school and every home.

Michael Pastore
10 February 2008
Ithaca, New York