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Friday, July 13, 2012

John Green on why books beat any iPad app

Author John Green, one half of the Vlogbrothers (along with his brother Hank) talked to USA TODAY's Bob Minzesheimer about this summer's choice for their Nerdfighter Book Club —Ray Bradbury's classic novel, Fahrenheit 451— and about the role of books in a digital age.

Q: When & why did you first readFahrenheit 451?

A: I read it in ninth grade. I remember liking it more than most of the books I read for English class that year, but that's not saying much. I was one of those students who was predisposed to disliking a book simply because it had been assigned to me. These days, I'm a much bigger fan of English classes and critical reading, and one of the reasons we started the book club in the first place was to make the argument that it's pleasurable to read great literature, and to read with care and thoughtfulness, which is why we like doing this over the summer, when there's no school.

Q: Why choose it for the Nerdfighters Book Club?

A: I think it will be really interesting to discuss the themes of the novel — particularly thinking about the ways context and sustained intellectual engagement adds meaning to human life — in a place (the Internet) that is not exactly known for sustained intellectual engagement. Social networks are often home to precisely the kinds of factoids and half-truths that Bradbury worries about in Fahrrenheit 451. Nerdfighters are trying to build spaces online that can foster the kind of thoughtfulness and intellectual rigor that isn't always easy to find online. (Certainly, it is easier to find cute pictures of cats, for instance.) As we often say in the Nerdfighter community, "The truth resists simplicity," and I think Fahrenheit 451 is a great example of a novel that proves more complex and nuanced the closer you read.

Q: Your experiences with schools' summer reading assignments?

John and Hank Green's new Nerdfighter Book Club pick is the late Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.'

A: I loved my summer reading in high school — in fact, many of my favorite books were assigned to me as summer reading. (The Virgin Suicides and Song of Solomon come to mind.) I'm a big believer in pairing classics with contemporary literature, so students have the opportunity to see that literature is not a cold, dead thing that happened once but instead a vibrant mode of storytelling that's been with us a long time — and will be with us, I hope, for a long time to come.

Q: What do you think about using videos and the Internet on behalf of reading and books?

A: I don't think we should see the world of books as fundamentally separate from the world of the Internet. Yes, the Internet contains a lot of videos of squirrels riding skateboards, but it can also be a place that facilitates big conversations about books. We've seen that for years — whether it's thousands of people (mostly teenagers) choosing to read The Great Gatsby together over summer vacation, or projects like Infinite Summer, in which thousands of people read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest together over the summer of 2010.

There is a lot of talk in publishing these days that we need to become more like the Internet: We need to make books for short attention spans with bells and whistles — books, in short, that are as much like Angry Birds as possible. But I think that's a terrible idea. (It's also, it seems to me, Ray Bradbury's nightmare.)

I think instead writers and publishers and readers need to go to the places where people are, and make the argument that there is great value to the quiet, contemplative process of reading a novel, that reading great books carefully offers pleasures and consolations that no iPad app ever can. And that's what we're trying to do with the Nerdfighter Book Club.

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