Think of the children...

>> Friday, June 04, 2010 I may have noticed something really bad about e-books.

I like e-books. They have disadvantages, of course--f'r'instance, there's nothing like the tactile and olfactory experience of reading a book, especially an old one whose pages smell like dust, pulp and ink, feeling the corners of the pages as you flip them. But in terms of convenience, the e-book is hard to beat, honestly. And then there's the access advantage; I love bookstores, too, but the truth is that getting in the car and driving to one is obviously less convenient than ordering one online, and ordering one online is even more convenient if it can just spray itself electronically into your handheld or tabletop device while you do other things (if you like the whole instant gratification thing, and who doesn't?).

But then there was this study that I read about this week in Salon: "Book owners have smarter kids," reads the title of Laura Miller's commentary on it, and that's the gist of it. From the abstract:

Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China.

It seems having even as few as two dozen books lying around the house can make a difference in how long a kid stays in school.

I'm not in any position to judge the math (why, just the other day I was suggesting we power the world with candy and soda!), but I'm not really surprised. My own experience, not wholly unlike Miller's comments about reading George Bernard Shaw, was that having parents who had books lying around the house meant that I was picking those books up or pulling them off the shelves, reading them even when I didn't necessarily understand them, and was naturally encouraged to have (and thrilled to use) a bookshelf of my own. The idea of opening a book and reading it wasn't a foreign one as I grew older, and friends who were nerdy tended to have parents with books around while kids who struggled with reading--by which I include not just difficulty reading, but even an unwillingness to read even among some of the smart kids--had parents who didn't. Or so it seems, anyway.

But the lack of surprise while reading Miller's piece was only one of two reactions. The second was dismay, and, interestingly enough, when I followed one of Miller's links I noticed I wasn't the only one who thought of it:

I wonder what e-book readers like the Kindle will mean to these statistics. On the plus side, a lot of e-books are free and those that aren't are often discounted, so a family with a Kindle might be able to afford more books (assuming they can pony up for the device). But the books aren't as easy to share and you probably don't want your 5-year-old dribbling juice onto your fancy expensive gadget.

Plus, the Kindle doesn't look as nice on a shelf.

Indeed. A book on a shelf and an electronic device are both attractions to inquisitive young fingers and eyes, but their natures are fundamentally different. The book is in a way that an e-reader isn't, by which I mean that to pick up a book and open it is to instantly feel and see something of the pleasures the book offers while the electronic device offers a series of distracting steps--the power button, menus, glowiness; to enjoy the experience of a Nook or Kindle, one is not necessarily enjoying the virtual page, which is seen through a glass (dimly, until you adjust the contrast--and there's something else to play with that isn't connected to "bookiness"). And if we're talking about the iPad, should it in fact prove to be a "Kindle-killer," heaven help us, this is a device that offers games and video and the Internet before you even press the icon that offers the "book."

I don't know if I'm adequately conveying the thought. And I'm not trying to diminish the pleasures of an e-book or say that one is innately better than the other, particularly where adults are concerned. What I'm thinking, or imagining, is the child who explores the electronic medium versus the child who clumsily slips a book off a shelf, and how the experience of the former contrasts with the experience of the latter. Perhaps ironically, given what I said in an earlier paragraph about instant gratification, in this context it's the book that immediately offers up its treasures, its pleasures of sight and scent and feel, versus the device that lights up and presents the image of the thing rather than the thing.

It's not really about content, see? I read a story on my BlackBerry and read it again in a softcover book, the content is the same and the pleasure of translating words into thoughts much the same. No, it's about experience, which is undeniably different. And I suspect that for the little kid who is getting his or her first taste, the experience is what's more important; the child may struggle with the content or miss much of it, but he or she's engaging with the experience of accessing that content, and will the experience of pressing the "on" button and scrolling through menus and waiting however-long for a page to load have the same desirable effect as the experience of opening one of Mommy or Daddy's books to a random page and having the young brain infected by that peculiar virus we call "literacy"?

That's not even to mention the other point that the writer at Percolator mentions: one might give a child an old book to, so to speak, devour like an orange, manhandling the cover, falling asleep with it in the bed, reading it ragged in the backseat of the car or even, yes, looking at it in the bathroom (and there's a behavior to encourage: the primary purpose of the home toilet may be to receive and disperse human waste, but, as everybody knows, the nearly-as-important secondary purpose of a toilet is to offer a place and time for reading). It's harder to imagine giving the child a $300 or $500 device, especially if most households (at least in the foreseeable future) are likely to have only one (or at most two) of the devices for the entire household.

Personally, it's a slightly abstract concern: the odds of my ever having children are slim (and if it should happen, I'm satisfied my bookshelves and reading habits will encourage any toddler wishing to ape a parental figure only to accidentally catch bibliophilia in the process). But it might be something to respectfully suggest to any readers of this blog who have or might-have children someday: love the e-reader device, but make sure your shelves are stocked and consider, if you have children, making some purchases physical ones so that they're around for the kid to trip over.

Something to think about, anyway.


Shawn Powers Friday, June 4, 2010 at 10:26:00 AM EDT  

As a family, we currently own 3 dedicated eBook readers, and at least that many smart phones that can do the same. Yet even since our fire, we've purchased enough books to fill several bookshelves.

I'm sure it helps that I'm married to a librarian!

The thing that pains me though, is that of our 3 children, only one is a passionate reader. I often wonder why they're not all readers. In fact, I wonder if a poor youth on my part urged me to escape into books, whereas we've given our children so many luxuries I never had as a kid.

Janiece Friday, June 4, 2010 at 10:48:00 AM EDT  

Eric: We're an e:reader family, but for kids? Sturdy, paper books. with lots of color. If/when I ever have grandkids (MANY, MANY YEARS FROM NOW) or nieces or nephews. they will all receive BOOKS from their Gram or Auntie Janiece. Experience does matter, and I want the kids in my life to enjoy a love of reading. eBook readers are for people who ALREADY love reading.

Shawn: It's not too late. It took the Smart Man and I many, many years to spark a love of reading into the Smart Boy. He was in his early teens before it finally "took." Don't give up hope. I myself didn't get into reading until late childhood.

Shawn Powers Friday, June 4, 2010 at 10:51:00 AM EDT  

Janiece: That's very encouraging. Thank you!

Eric Friday, June 4, 2010 at 11:08:00 AM EDT  

Janiece: I think that's a good way to put it--"eBook readers are for people who ALREADY love reading." I just hope some of our fellow technophiles/bibliophiles remember that, too!

Shawn: In addition to what Janiece said about it never being too late, I think you can feel comfortable that even your kids who aren't passionate readers at least have the idea that reading is something people do. It's not foreign to them, and it's something they'll do naturally in school and maybe even pick up a passion for in later years. So, like Janiece said, don't give up hope or let it pain you.

The kids to worry about are the ones who come from households--of any income level--where the idea of somebody sitting down with a book for fifteen minutes or several hours is completely alien. I've been in houses--nice houses--where there's nary a book in sight, or only a paltry handful of bestsellers or decoratively-placed dust-covered books that haven't been touched since college (if then) or were obviously purchased at a yard sale. Any kids in a house without any books or readers end up with no reference point--reading is something "nerds" do, not something "real people" do, so they don't do it either.

Mrs. Bitch Friday, June 4, 2010 at 11:25:00 AM EDT  

Hey Eric

I read the whole post, really, but the one sentence that grabbed my attention was where you said, "reading them even when I didn't necessarily understand them..." It brought back memories of being in 4th or 5th grade, so maybe 9 to 10 years old (I was a year younger than everyone else) and buying a pulp sci-fi novel at a booksale and being so frustrated at being able to read it, but not understanding what so many of the words meant. Yeah, there was this whole world of ideas and thoughts and I just couldn't quite grasp it all yet. Pissed me off.

Fortunately, my mother was a reader; I've never seen my father read anything but an instruction manual and a newspaper. Out of us three kids, two of us love to read, one never really picked up the habit (unfortunately, she had a battle-axe of a first or second grade teacher that made her life a living hell over learning to read). Interestingly, the two of us who loved to read are college grads, my sister never went.

Having never read an e-book, and never planning to, I can't make a judgment, but I do love buying books. It's one of the few completely unnecessary luxuries I will blow money on.

John the Scientist Friday, June 4, 2010 at 12:14:00 PM EDT  

As tech savvy as I am (all the shit I have to carry on my belt for work makes me look like Batman), I have resisted and will continue to resist an e-reader. It would bee too easy for me to blow too much money on books, then, and I have a family to consider. :D

The kids have more books than will fit on their large shelves. I think the tactile experience is important for them at that age. And I think there's something to the fact that books on a shelf can be seen and picked up. I have a whole shelf in my room on the Arab - Israeli conflict, and my 7 year old has already asked about it, whereas, if that were in Dad's folder on the e-reader, she'd never even open it up. That can be somewhat overcome with parental will - I have read excerpts from "The Soong Dynasty" to her and we read a middle-school level book on Chinese women and foot binding ("Ties That Break, Ties That Bind") that she would probably not have picked up on if I hadn't pressed the issue. But you can't pre-select everything for you kids if you want them to grow up strong with their own interests.

A random selector from the e-reader that throw up ideas for kids to read might help...

Dunno. I don't see kids books, especially illustrated ones goinjg away soon.

The other thing is that if you rely only on e-readers, your closing yourself off from a lot of quality stuff for a good 50 years until a lot of important information that is locked in out-of-print books gets scanned in. I just was in the DC area, and before heading back to the airport I stopped by Second Story Books in Rockville. Got a circa 1970 book on the 1967 Israeli offensive printed by the War College that I'm pretty sure will never be in eletronic format.

Nathan Friday, June 4, 2010 at 12:20:00 PM EDT  

I have a couple of reactions (having grown up in a house with a few walls of filled bookcases).

First, I'm sure, as Janiece mentioned, parents and grandparents will continue to buy those heavy duty books for little children...the ones where chewing on the corners is more likely than really looking at the pictures, much less reading. And I think a great case can be made for continuing to buy real books for kids into their pre-tweens. I think you're right about "instant gratification" having a couple of different definitions here.

OTOH, did you see that video of the father handing his four-year-old an I-pad and the kid seemed to instinctively figure out how to navigate the menus? I have no doubt that a colorful, cheep, and relatively rugged e-reader will be marketed really soon for the youngest of children. And even the littlest ones will love it.

neurondoc Friday, June 4, 2010 at 12:29:00 PM EDT  

Both paper and pixel for me, but paper only for ThePinkThing at this point. Unfortunately, she just doesn't dig reading, almost never picks up a book to leaf through it on her own and is content to let me read to her at night (instead of puzzling over books on her own). Sometimes I wonder what I've done wrong. Perhaps my incessant reading habit stemmed from growing up with a physical disability -- reading was something I was good at. I dunno. I still cherish hopes that she'll love books and reading as much as I do, someday. Regardless, having a zillion paper books around hasn't seemed to push TPT towards reading.

As you know, I recently purchased the Sony PRS-300 and am really digging it. However, I lovelovelove the feel of well-bound books with smooth pages way better than the convenience of an ebook reader. The ebook reader is a nice complement to my real books but not really intended to replace them.

(Work let me onto your site for the first time in quite a while. I suspect your next foray into spam email responses will get you back onto our sh*tlist).

Eric Friday, June 4, 2010 at 2:58:00 PM EDT  

The other thing is that if you rely only on e-readers, your closing yourself off from a lot of quality stuff for a good 50 years until a lot of important information that is locked in out-of-print books gets scanned in. I just was in the DC area, and before heading back to the airport I stopped by Second Story Books in Rockville. Got a circa 1970 book on the 1967 Israeli offensive printed by the War College that I'm pretty sure will never be in eletronic format.

It sort of goes both ways, actually. There's a lot of stuff that's been converted to e-formats by Project Gutenberg that's fallen out of copyright that is unlikely to be re-printed, and because of some quirks in Australian copyright law some of it is more recent than you'd expect (anything by an author who died before 1955 is currently in the public domain in Australia) if you go to Project Gutenberg Australia.

Amazon, Microsoft and Google have also been actively scanning/converting public domain texts, as have a number of universities, and while all of these efforts have started with books likely to be of interest to somebody, those efforts have expanded outwards to cover more outre materials (Google's efforts have been pretty indiscriminate--their long-term goal is to have every written text in existence converted to an e-format eventually.) And "outre" is subjective: some university e-book sites have focused on out-of-print materials that wouldn't be interesting to anyone outside of a certain field, but vital within. Additionally, a number of private/freelance individuals have scanned or transcribed texts of interest to themselves (e.g. writings of particular authors, scans of copylost* comic books, etc.).

A book written or published in the late '60s early '70s probably isn't in the public domain anywhere and thus probably isn't legally available in e-format, but I wouldn't be too certain that it isn't going to end up as a legitimately available scan, PDF or pluckr file someday!


*There are several categories of e-texts. There are copyrighted works commercially licensed for e-publication, copyrighted works publicly licensed (e.g. under a Creative Commons or similar license), copyrighted works that have been individually licensed by the copyright holder (e.g. they might be freely downloadable but not distributed by the licensees) and works whose copyright has expired and have entered the public domain. There are also works that are technically still in copyright but they've become the literary version of abandonware because the copyright holder no longer can enforce any rights or is indeterminate. This isn't an exclusive list.

Most countries share common copyright standards under the Berne Convention, but there are outliers, eccentrics and exceptions. Australia, as mentioned above, had a quirk in their copyright law that made works by certain authors public domain even while their works were under copyright in much of the rest of the world (this "loophole" may have changed recently for more recently published works); the Internet, of course, doesn't discriminate geographically (unless you live behind the Great Firewall Of China), so it's not like you can't download an Australian public domain copy of Animal Farm, let's say, despite the fact you're located in a country where all of Orwell's books are still copyrighted by his estate.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Friday, June 4, 2010 at 3:12:00 PM EDT  

When we lived in half of a duplex house, the other family had to go away suddenly on a family emergency and wanted us to feed the iguana. No problem. But there was also a big rain storm and since it was a new house, we had some leaking in the basement. So we did a tour of the other side to make sure they were dry.

When we got home we realized -- we hadn't seen one thing to read in the house. No books, magazines, newspapers. This with two teens in the house. Yes, there was a HUGE TV and hundreds of video tapes. But no books.

We felt sad for them.

Dr. Phil

WendyB_09 Friday, June 4, 2010 at 11:19:00 PM EDT  

We grew up in a house overflowing with books, parents who read all the time and frequent trips to the library. We were allowed to read pretty much anything in the house as our ability grew. On more than one occassion our parents thought one of us was outside in the neighborhood and were surprised to find us in our room reading.

Parents have a den with overflowing bookcases on two wall, and I assembled a stand-alone for them a year ago, it's already full. My own place...need shelf stretchers for the bookcases I have and my coffee table is a horizontal bookcase at the moment.

We turned out ok. Don't have kids to give the books to, will probably start donating to the local retirement communities again.

Oh, and I just discovered there is a second hand bookstore on my bus route!

Anonymous,  Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 1:02:00 PM EDT  

Eric, I may have just sent an email but I will repeat what I said here. Book stores are my salvation. You are so much my child. I go to a book store when I am most stressed for the comfort. Love, Mom

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