I’m sitting in my pickup truck reading The Seattle Times at my favorite location — Robinson Beach on Whidbey Island — when a gaggle of young folk return from the beach, sunburned and sweating. The owner of their van struggles to open the rear hatch, and her friends cheer when it partially opens … then laugh when it jams again.
“Now what?” I said, in a neighborly fashion. Most of them laughed, but one did not.
“Why aren’t you out on the beach?” the girl asked, suspiciously.
“I have to read the paper first,” I said. “There’s a lot going on out there.” I held up the page I was reading to show her the headline: “Spotlight on four Big Tech CEOs testifying in competition probe.”
“First I read the paper. Then I walk the beach,” I explained.
“Huh,” she grunted. Why anyone would read a newspaper was beyond her — as if I was endorsing buggy whips. With that, the hatch sprang open. The group stowed their gear and drove away.
I am one of those nonessential seniors with nothing better to do than read the news. I inherited this habit from my father, who subscribed to two newspapers, the better to understand our local and regional world. Dad was famous for falling asleep reading the paper in his lounge chair at home and crapped-out on the family blanket at the beach, the paper serving as a sunshade.
Sharing sections of the papers around the breakfast table was a family tradition. Reading aloud choice bits from stories was a reliable form of entertainment. After church, the Sunday pages were spread across the carpet in the living room, older kids helping younger ones read the funnies.
The rise of television ended that way of life forever, of course. And I loved those stupid sitcoms and westerns as much as any knucklehead of my generation. But I will never forget the day I came home and saw my family watching TV as if hypnotized. I was about 15, and right then I made a conscious decision to choose reading and writing over watching television.
My repulsion was intuitive. It wasn’t until my college media studies, when we read Marshall McLuhan’s books, “The Gutenberg Galaxy” and “Understanding Media,” that I began to comprehend the dimensions of our post-literate world.
Inevitably, I ended up working for 22 years in a public library, being paid to promote literacy, which you might think would be as easy as promoting fresh air and clean water — right? Turns out, not at all. Reading is hard to learn and must be practiced regularly to be most effective. It is a skill increasingly less relevant to our screen-based online world. It certainly takes more time and effort to read a real newspaper and comprehend current events than to passively sit and watch talking heads do it for you.
Another thing I’ll never forget is the day the internet came to our library. They were running Ethernet cable through the ceiling tiles. We had to get our own PC out of the box, set them up and get online ASAP!
The playing field was suddenly leveled, and anybody could theoretically get information — which is not the same thing as knowledge — from anywhere. Our jobs evolved from helping people find books to helping people use the internet to find shelter, to get work and to pursue academic degrees through online diploma mills such as the University of Phoenix and the infamous Trump University.
The creation of the internet and World Wide web opened the greatest Pandora’s box of all time, and out of it has sprung President Donald Trump — our first post-literate president. I can’t help wondering what his presidential library is going to look like, and what could it possibly contain? Magic-marker notes? An endlessly repeating stream of tweets? A video collection of “The Apprentice”? Certainly, it should feature a holographic image of Trump, viewable in 360 degrees. Let future generations look on this man of self-aggrandizement and be warned.