The Age of Technology most certainly has arrived. I have grown less amazed and more dependent on what is available to me at my fingertips thanks to the glorious iPhone I invested in this past Christmas.
Instantaneously, I can obtain directions to a wedding while in a rental car without a GPS, movie listings when the one I planned on seeing was sold out, or a suitable, child-friendly bistro while exploring Central Park. I can text my sixth grader when he is late coming home from school with an instant message and even research any imaginable topic on Safari.
Yet even as I utilize the gadget daily—hourly even—I certainly recognize that we are in danger of losing valuable skills and pleasures by relying so heavily on them.
Nicholas Carr outlined this very danger in his article Is Google Making Us Stupid? published in The Atlantic. Carr argues that technology is literally changing the way we think, limiting our ability to contemplate deeply, and instead skimming topics at the surface “like a jet ski on the waves.”
Ironically, we may actually be reading and writing more than we did before the advent of the iGadget and widespread use of the internet, but the value of our reading has most certainly changed. Many of us no longer sink into a comfortable couch with an old copy of Charles Dickens to contemplate the human condition of Little Nell, or to wonder what in hell happened to Philip Roth as a child to conjure up such a tale as American Pastoral. Instead, we reject the physical pleasure of a book and skim about in the virtual wasteland of reading material offered up instantaneously with panache and style by Google and others.
My nine year-old daughter Lizzie, however, seems to be a new age kind of Renaissance child, one who certainly enjoys the computer, but prefers the tactile pleasure of a book. She has reveled in the physical pleasure of books, as well as the educational value of them since she was an infant.
As she grew and walked and became more cognizant of the world around her, her bedtime routine became a daily festival of picture books and pleadings for “just one more.” We’d often have to pause at a particularly beautiful page, to touch the drawings of Madeline, and pretend her fingers were the legs of a tiny child playing in its pages, most definitively in the drawing of the Jardin du Luxembourg on the patch of green grass. She was wowed that her grandfather’s 1927 adaptation of Aladdin was tucked into the bedside table in one of the sleeping lofts at their lakeside cottage.
As she entered preschool at the Parkside Montessori School, she reveled in the corner where they kept the “Sound Cans”, excitedly dropping in her phonics cards as she mastered a new pronunciation. She would clutch the covered coffee can and play with the cards, turning them over in her hand as she sounded out the letters. She put them together into words like it was a puzzle. She spent much of her independent learning time in front of the gorgeously displayed selection of books, which changed according to the season.
At Parkside, she also began to write. Finding a photograph in a magazine that she liked, she would carefully cut around it and paste it on a specially lined paper made for pictures and print and would dictate what she wanted to say about her picture. With a red marker she traced over what the teacher had scribed for her. She loved the other tactile aspects of learning to write at Montessori, especially the cards with the letters made of sand, which she would carefully trace with her fingertips enjoying the scratchy reassurance of the physical swirl of each character.
Soon, my husband and I started finding notes on our pillows with creatively spelled words, often times telling us her secret feelings about something or her wishes for a weekend activity. Once we got a drawing of a classmate, I’ll call her Jane, who had struck her in the playground over a battle for the plastic slide. The drawing was clearly of Jane with a red slash through the body à la Ghostbusters saying simply: “No JANEs.” Most letters would be creatively folded to look like an envelope or a bird or something resembling an airplane, with the words “air male” printed on the side. It was as if the written words took on a literal, physical form for her that she molded from her own hands.
Now she is a fully functional, “reading to learn” third grader ignoring her math packets at Edgemont Montessori School as much as she can to instead devour whatever volume currently residing in her backpack. She has stacks of journals which would rival Thomas Jefferson’s and loves the Montclair Public Library. She has on more than one occasion asked who will fill the space of the shoe store next to Watchung Booksellers, as I recently pointed out a sign that the present occupant, a shoe store, is moving to Upper Montclair. “I hope Margot (the owner of Watchung) will buy it so they can have more books to browse,” she said.
For her ninth birthday, my husband and I were not shocked to receive a list of the titles she wanted as gifts. Half of them were deemed worthy selections by her mother, such as the lastest installment of the Clementine series and a copy of Brian Selznik’s Wonderstruck. But The Popularity Papers didn’t hold muster. We decided that an electronic reader would make a terrific gift, to keep the candy selection of books tucked away in a database while the meat and potatoes books could take up the more valuable real estate on her bedroom bookshelves. We invested in the color Nook at Barnes and Noble, so she could also enjoy electronic copies of graphic novels and magazines on it, too, without worrying about them getting tangled up in the recycle bin.
Firstly, she was excited over the prospects of being able to tote hundreds of volumes with her on any given vacation without having to lug hundreds of pounds of weight in her backpack. She could sneak in a game of Life in between reading sessions without her mother knowing. But after a month of owning the gadget, we found her more often abandoning it and turning instead to her hard copies. The physical book offered a real reading experience I supposed, or perhaps the meat and potatoes appealed more to her than the cotton candy. Maybe she lost the charger.
An event over the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend, when my family and I visited Litchfield, Connecticut for some quiet family time, revealed something much more emotional. One morning, whilst looking for an independent bookshop on Litchfield Green that had been there last we visited (and the enticement for getting my Lizzie to come at all), we were dismayed to find a women’s clothier had taken its stead. We ducked in to find relief from the cold and perhaps a pretty hair bow for her, and found ourselves in a friendly conversation with the sales person about the changing face of the Green. The chat inevitably slid into a sort of friendly sales pitch.
She showed us a series of small purses that were made from the hard cover bindings of old books, thinking my 9 year-old would be smitten with the nostalgic piece of tiny, impractical luggage. Not seeing much sense in them, I supposed, Lizzie simply smiled and said they were “cool” and moved along to the hair bands. Joining her, I noticed a twinge of discomfort in her eyes and her mouth fixed in a crooked grimace, seemingly fighting back tears. I asked her if she was OK and she simply responded, “I am disappointed that we can’t get a new book. Can we go to the one in Washington later?” With a promise of another excursion, we politely left with a thank you and a wave.
We arrived home to Montclair later that week and settled into our daily routine again, one hair bow richer and rested after a weekend of books, board games and big dinners. As always on school nights, I climbed into bed with my two older children at about 8 p.m. for our hour of quiet reading time together before lights out at 9 p.m. As we settled our backs on the pillows, my 12 year-old son pointed out a section in Cool Stuff Exploded, by Chris Woodford that outlined how a touch screen on a smart phone (or e-book!) works, when Liz urgently whispered to me that she had something very important to discuss with me.. I said we’d have a moment before bed to talk, and turned to read aloud a couple of chapters of Little House on the Prarie for her.
“I am very sad about something,” Lizzie began as I later pulled her blanket over to her chin. “I think it’s terrible that the lady in Litchfield tore up those antique books to make purses!” And there it was: Lizzie reduced to tears, the fat kind that quickly spill out of an elementary school child’s eyes and immediately swelled and reddened her nose.
“I am afraid that soon there won’t be any more books!” she coughed.
I immediately regretted buying her a Nook for her birthday in an attempt to stave off some of the cluttery paperbacks that lined the baseboards of her bedroom. Seemingly reading my mind, she said, “I like having my Nook Book and all, but I like having real books too!”
The lady in Litchfield in the fancy shop reduced a copy of The Bobsy Twins to a nostalgic, useless purse that couldn’t expand to accommodate a paperback, or her Nook, for that matter. For Lizzie, this act was practically blasphemous. Books aren’t pieces of nostalgia, they are a physical necessity she needs to touch, to smell, and even at one point in her life to taste. She uses them to wake in the morning over her morning toast. She uses them to escape while in school, she uses them to lull herself to sleep at night. What a frightening prospect, to live in a world without physical books!
The technology that is buzzing about us with a faint bluish glow doesn’t hold the same comfort that a book provides: you certainly can’t snuggle up to it under the covers and fall asleep with it at your chest as comfortably. Lizzie, and I suspect many of us, finds the charm and anti-technical design of the old fashioned bound book infinitely more pleasing to the senses and familiar. I have not yet read a book on an electronic reader, yet I do know when reading things on line that I find the process of flipping back to an earlier page frustrating and disorienting, never having a physical way by which to hold my spot. I just want to put my finger in the page or dog ear the previous one. Perhaps she has felt that same frustration.
As a remedy or reassurance, I brought Lizzie to our attic where we have dozens of boxes of books that we don’t have room for on the few shelves we own. I showed her that they were well protected and hers for the taking should the need or want ever arise. I took her to the New York Public Library, where the stately, noble, marble lions guard the entrance to the appropriately grande Beaux-Arts building, containing more than 15 million volumes. We browsed the exhibition on the founding of the library, built 100 years ago to preserve all that glorious paper, and were charmed by Christopher Robin Milne’s original stuffed Winnie the Pooh and Eyore. She knows now, very well, that she is not alone in recognizing that the value of these bound volumes are not ephemeral, but worthy of investment and protection.
If Lizzie decides to have children of her own one day, I hope they will be able to dance their fingers across the pages of Madeline without the white cotton gloves of an antiques dealer. I wish for a decent public library in her town and that a charming independent bookseller—with a voraciously hungry reading staff like Margo’s at Watchung Booksellers—will sell that tactile pleasure that she needs so much to touch, feel and read. I hope she shares that seemingly soon-to-be nostalgic pleasure with her own family.
I have discussed e-readers with many fellow readers and the opinion of the virtual book is split. They certainly have a place in this progressive world. But so many others have expressed a deep passion for and absolute loyalty to the physical book. I have faith that a new age of the Renaissance Reader is upon us. New technologies are available to us that are convenient and flashy, practical and fun, but as human beings we are tactile and feeling individuals who will always reach for those gloriously bound volumes. We are by nature deep thinkers with a need to contemplate, to be creative, to reason at leisure. Just as “any man with a fortune must be in want of a good wife,” any deep reader in possession of a contemplative mind will be in want of a good book made of good old-fashioned paper.
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