A newspaper here in Hong Kong recently ran a commentary about the children of many of the top executives at hi-tech companies in Silicon Valley –Google, Apple, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard. These children attend the local Waldorf school, a school where computers are not allowed in the classroom, and their use at home is frowned upon. The commentator asks the question: do these parents know something that other parents don’t?
Skimming and scrolling have become the way of “reading” on the Internet – both of these activities are the antithesis of the process of absorbing words and meanings in a book. I am seeing it in some young children who come to the library to do research on a topic – they seem to have real difficulty in reading slowly and carefully what is on the screen in order to find the answers to their questions. My concern is that these skills will be transferred to the smaller screen of tablets and Kindles, and that the discipline of reading a book will be lost. I recommend the book called The Shallows: how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, by Nicholas Carr for a powerful discussion of these issues.
Ray Bradbury died recently. The author of Fahrenheit 451 claimed that he wrote about futures that he hoped to prevent. With half a dozen Primary 6 students lined up to read this quite grown-up book, I am hopeful that the book, in whatever form, will prevail.
For these and other students at my school there is a wonder and excitement about stories, and learning to read is a major achievement for them. Being granted the hallowed title of “free reader” is one to which they all aspire, some from as young as Primary 2. Each library session I will hold up a couple of books, sometimes quite old books, from the collection, and before I have even begun to outline the story, I have children raising their hands to borrow that book. When I protest that I have not told them anything significant about the story, they claim that it does not matter. The fact of it being in the library to begin with, and the fact that I have selected it, and that I have also read it (sometimes when I was a child– quite a long time ago!!), and that I am about to recommend it, is enough for them.
These children are surrounded by supportive teachers, and parents who are, happily, able to afford to buy them books, and who actively support using the wonderful resources of local public, and other, libraries. Little wonder then that they are avid readers, in spite of all the gadgets and imaginative toys that are part of children’s lives today, and which some see as a major competitor for valuable reading time.
So, the debate is what exactly? About the form of the book obviously, and what is potentially lost when we digitize and, to an extent, privatize, our reading materials. I have had many discussions with my young students about this so-called issue. Many of them now have Kindles and other devices, and some of them use them exclusively. However, we continue to have a large number who prefer the paper book form.
Prior to writing these few words for the great eDebate, I canvassed opinion from my Primary 5 and Primary 6 students. They were very balanced in their views. They felt that in some situations, like going on holidays, that the Kindle was a much better alternative. One little girl has a special carryon suitcase which she usually filled with books for the long summer holiday. Her parents were mightily pleased when loving godparents gave her a Kindle. However, for curling up at home, in a beanbag, or on her bed, she preferred a paper book. Horses for courses. One boy even went so far as to say “I love the satisfaction of having people see that I have finished a big book!! I don’t get that from reading on a Kindle!”
Another child mentioned that part of the joy of reading the latest book, say Uglies by Scott Westerfield, was that they could easily pass it on to their friends. Not so easily done with a Kindle or iPad – yet. One child said that in that way the new technology is more “selfish”. Interesting observation I thought and one with which I would agree. The act of lending or giving a book to someone is a very active sharing – whatever the technology advocates say, this is just NOT possible in the same way with e-technology. If you want to “share” a book on technology then you both need to go out and buy it – great for the author I guess, but something special is lost. And I make no apologies for feeling nostalgic!
Parents who were listening in on the class discussion then brought up the matter of book design, and things like pop-up books, and books with superb, specialized illustrations. Could these be as satisfyingly reproduced in a digital format? Would people with wonderful skills in these creative areas no longer be needed, or valued? The children felt probably not – these would be the kinds of books which would continue to be produced in paper format.
I get the sense when speaking with fellow readers that the inevitability of the Kindle and other similar technologies cannot be ignored. When we think about how pervasive the mobile phone now is – our parents and grandparents in their 80s now are forced to have one, either because of concerned family, or because it is cheaper than a landline, or for whatever reason. Some people have resisted and I admire them. In the same way I think that the Kindle and similar will triumph – my own personal opinion about the power of the big technology companies to infiltrate our lives is not for this forum. I have seen university professors dance excitedly on stage at a professional development workshop on the educational benefits of the new technologies, espousing the joys of the latest iPod or whatever. I remarked to a colleague that they were no better than glorified salesmen for that particular company.
In many ways the ‘either-or’ of this great eDebate is not really the issue. Writers will continue to have great ideas for stories. Books will continue to be written and published. Hopefully our wonderful authors will still be able to be paid for their labour when a copy is purchased, or borrowed from a library. These are very important licensing issues but do not concern the actual stuff of the book itself.
The real issue is the continuing promotion of the value and joy of reading. And of the idea that it needs concentration and “work”. To understand what a writer is truly saying needs more than “skimming” and “scrolling”. The promotion of discussion is present in many schools and public libraries. Parents reading to their children around the dinner table, playing audio books in the car – all of these activities are part of, and will ensure the continuing life of, the book. I encounter parents who do these things all the time. Younger children listening with their siblings to Singing for MrsPettigrew by Michael Morpurgo, with the older ones explaining to the younger ones the more complex words and ideas.
Inviting authors to speak with children, to stimulate and excite them about writing – libraries need budgets for this important activity as well. These are vital ways to promote the love of stories. Visits to our school by Isobelle herself this year inspired children to gallop through her Little Fur series, and to beg me for more. I told them to email Isobelle!
The most important thing about this debate is that we ensure that we do not ever have a world like the one envisaged by Ray Bradbury. There might well be a time when the job of librarian will be quite different – children will come into the library and simply download the latest novel, or the recommended classic from the library’s computer. The format will be different, the storage will be different, but the stories will remain as clever and funny and moving and dangerous as ever!!