Friday, December 29, 2006

Brought to Book.

It’s difficult to warm towards politicians. There’s the envy of their having got a pretty cushy job due to the lack of attention paid by the voters and the feeling that being paid for sitting on hard benches and occasionally saying “Hear, hear,” or possibly “Rubbish,” is not much in the line of hard work. But in my case, I make an exception for the blond, bicycling Boris Johnson, who is not only prepared to open his mouth and speak his mind but is also, in the tradition of all good contortionists, always likely to put his foot in it. And in spite of his ability to upset the pompous, much of what he says makes so much sense that I’m amazed he was even allowed into politics at all, commonsense being a quality normally eschewed in such circles.

My feelings are, of course, coloured by the fact that he often agrees with my own feelings. And, in a recent column, he spoke of the growing evils of computer games and the expensive and complex offerings that have been spawned by them.

It seems that this Christmas, sales of such devices have escalated and, as neither he nor I have shares in the companies involved, we are bound to deplore the fact. Children, and probably a few adults as well, prefer twiddling mindlessly with the controls whilst glued to the TV or computer screen with glazed eyes, to reading a book. And, under the circumstances, even the “Da Vinci Code” or “Pete – My Story” might be adjudged preferable (I appreciate that that’s a tough call).

Mr. Johnson’s concern is with the growing standards of illiteracy in a nation that has the most developed language on earth, the median skill now being the ability to decipher the menu at MacDonald’s. Things may be worse in the United States, for in New York, an African Grey parrot has been found to have a vocabulary of some 950 words, which is, I understand, 850 words more than the average New Yorker uses in everyday life.

It might be unfair to blame this lack of interest in the written word entirely on video games, television must shoulder some of the blame, but I don’t think Mr. Johnson has examined the full implications.

As I remember it, it all started with a game called PacMan, which generally filled in the time whilst waiting for your washing to dry at the Laundromat or similar social event. The idea that the little figure, presumably Mr. Pac, was cannibalistic indicated the violent trend to which the programmers were leaning. Now nearly all the games involve violence of some sort and, in a nation which has quite enough of this sort of thing on the streets, it’s odd that anyone would want to reproduce it on the screen in their homes.

Great civilisations have depended on the written word to develop. What if Homer had been down at the washeteria and had fallen under the spell of PacMan? Not much chance of an Iliad or two out of him, I suspect, although as he was blind, he might not have fallen for it.

And if Boccacio’s group had got their hands on a Nintendo during the plague, do you think they’d have bothered telling stories to each other? The Decameron would never have made it, they’d have been too busy squabbling over the controls.

Will Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway would probably have spent evenings at home, twiddling away, leaving him barely time to knock out Hen. V and get it on at The Globe.

And Dickens, who allegedly wrote his stuff whilst sitting in his own living room when he wasn’t off with his mistress, could hardly have concentrated while the kids were playing with Game boy in the corner.

So perhaps the dearth of modern writers of quality can be accounted for by the blossoming of alternative attractions to the book. The looming menace of the video game is a threat to literacy.

It is always good to look on the bright side, however, and we can but hope that somebody gave Dan Brown a Play Station Two for Christmas. With a bit of luck, that will keep him off his typewriter for a bit.


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