When I was a kid, my father was big on reading to us. As far back as I can remember, we had story time. From That Darn Cat! (seriously, that was the title) to The Hobbit, we spent hours lost in the literary world. Typically, he’d give us a couple chapters, after which we’d discuss what we’d read. My brother and I were quite young at the time we read Animal Farm, but I remember how late we stayed up to talk about what was happening, what we thought would happen next, and how we felt about it.
I think those discussions were imperative to our true understanding of the more advanced works. Sure, we were listening to the story, but it wasn’t until we talked about it: pondering the deeper meanings of plot and theme, and debated our predictions, that those books became tangible, “living” stories, to us. Those pigs were evil! How could they do that? Our discussions made us care, they encouraged us to develop an opinion, and to argue it.
I think I was about eight when he stumbled on a new kind of book (new to us, anyhow). It was an interactive novel, where you’re given ten or so pages of plot, then prompted to choose what happens next. For example: the character hears a strange noise coming from upstairs. Go and investigate, or ignore it? Turn to page 37 to see what’s upstairs.
Once we found those books, we couldn’t get enough. My brother and I took turns making decisions, and we reread the same stories countless times to explore the possibilities. After we’d exhausted our supply, we made a game of coming up with new scenarios, taking our own stories further and further. I credit those interactive novels with sparking my love for writing. They opened up a whole new world for me, one that inspired me to create my own worlds, my own characters.
The other day, I went looking for these books for my own children. I searched Amazon, B & N, Google, everywhere I could think to look. I came up empty. I finally posted on a GR forum, and was supplied with the correct search terms: “choose your own adventure.” One of the responders wrote that there aren’t many of these books to choose from nowadays. Though the format is interesting, she said, with smartphones and tablets and PS8 (or whatever they’re up to now), how much interest remains for these types of novels? My guess, not much.
I find this incredibly sad. When I was a kid, we didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have cell phones, or tablets. If I was bored, I picked up a book or drafted stories from my own imagination. Creativity was a requirement for entertainment. It’s not anymore. Though I’m ashamed to admit it, I lost four hours the other day on an angry birds marathon. Now, I can’t say I didn’t use my brain doing this. Those little buggers didn’t want to cooperate AT ALL. I had to think about angles and velocity. I had to plan a little. But was I engaged? Do I feel I gained anything tangible from the experience? Nope.
Entertainment, for those of us born more than thirty years ago, required effort. We had to be creative, whether in the games we made up to turn our backyard into the Old West, or in the backstory we gave every doll in our toy box. We didn’t have apps or video games, and cartoons were limited to Saturday mornings. Because of that, we sought adventures outside the house, or in our own minds. Sticks were swords or rifles. The missing patch of hair on Barbie’s head was from the fire she saved her pet poodle from the previous Spring. I had stories for every inch of my house, my street, the park across town. When I played with my friends, I interacted in ways I don’t see kids do anymore. We didn’t space out with MarioKart. We established rules for our pretend kingdom.
I look at the world my kids are growing up in and marvel at how different it is from what I experienced. Sometimes I think they’re better off, sometimes I worry about what they’re missing. Technology can liberate us, inspire us…but at the same time, it can rob us of the motivation to use our own imagination.
And, again…that makes me sad.