We Tell Stories is a visionary project sponsored by Penguin Books, in which six young writers with specializations in emergent technology each rework a classic book.  But it’s not just any re-working.  You can, for example, follow the protagonist of Slice (a reworking by Toby Litt of The Haunted Doll’s House) on Twitter.  Charles Cumming has created custom Google Maps to retell John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps.

The whole project takes me back to the debate over whether the internet is creating a generation of philistines.  It would seem to me from the layout of the WTS website and their clear emphasis on the retelling of classic stories that Penguin is hoping that the WTS project will get some people reading books that they otherwise would never have touched with a ten-foot pole.  Moreover, Penguin ran a competition for readers in which one lucky WTS reader won a libraryful of Penguin Classics books.  Not your usual thrilling internet contest prize.  But clearly enough to get people more invested in the project!

I don’t think the internet is leeching away at the intellectual wallop of my generation, at least not where it counts.  The people who won’t read past their high school literature class — or past their English requirement in college — aren’t going to read anyway.  In fact, the internet probably gets them to read more.  Whether or not it’s “reading” in the technical, old-school sense is another debate entirely, of course.  Literacy on the computer is a different kind of literacy on paper.

But the WTS project raises an interesting question: instead of complaining about how wrapped up in digital technology young people are today, why aren’t more people doing things which will translate interest in digital technology into “valuable” high-culture things like literature, music, poetry, and the humanities?  I think WTS is a stab in the right direction, taking media that kids today (I feel weird typing that) are familiar with, comfortable with, and associate with entertainment and their social lives, and wrapping up things that adults — especially educators — might think are more worthwhile.  It would be interesting to do a qualitative study of who reads WTS the most, and whether or not they decide to go seek out the books that the WTS stories are based on.

I’m sick of hearing about the literacy debate from people who can’t think about literacy as anything other than reading books, while offering no other incentives to read books than reading books.  It’s not as though reading books and literature doesn’t have anything to offer people of my generation and younger (oh no!), it’s just that, as a recent New York Times article points out, a lot of kids’ first brushes with the classics are in boring high school English classrooms.  Who’s to blame them for not being interested in Robinson Crusoe when they can, literally, create their own adventures via fanfiction and MMORPGs?  And moreover, who’s to blame any of us internet fanatics for loving a medium that is infinitely versatile and constantly evolving?

All I’m saying is, stop complaining, internet naysayers.  Penguin Classics has the right idea.  There’s no way we, as a culture, are leaving behind the internet at this point.  There’s no way we’re leaving behind the great books that shaped our culture as we know it today.  The internet naysayers see a divide.  I see an interesting opportunity to pique the interest of people who otherwise wouldn’t be.  There are big problems in the world that there aren’t solutions for.  Here’s a big problem for which there is a solution: put the internet and great books together.  (Shift your framing system.)  Well done, WTS.

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