Children and the future of the book

Blogger and professor D.G. Myers on a subject that I raise with people all the time–e-readers are being adopted much more aggressively by older readers than younger readers, for lots of very conspicuous reasons. Sure, we all wish younger people read more; I was just reminded of this by a colleague who spent the past few years teaching composition at a state university. But the biggest mass-media phenomena of the past decade were two whopping multivolume book series that achieved enormous cultural prominence chiefly through their passionate embrace by young readers.

The Harry Potter and Twilight sagas have become even bigger through their conversion to film, but if you had tried to advance the idea fifteen years ago that the biggest media splashes of the early twenty-first century would be made by not one but two lengthy book series, comprising multiple fat novels eagerly lapped up by tween and teen readers the world over, no one would have believed you. The people who bought and read all those books over the past dozen years weren’t inhibited by the books’ expression as print products. Kids are fine with print. And Myers is very good on why older people are more likely to adopt e-reading devices than younger people.

Electronic reading devices are new devices for old readers. Younger readers do not come to books with the same personal history. In fact, their own history with books might lead them to prefer paper and binding. I’ve suggested as much before (here and here). Children first encounter books as physical things. Board books, lift-the-flap books, touch-and-feel books, pop-up books — their first books are three-dimensional objects that encourage children to explore them in all three dimensions. When they acquire their own books, the books they have selected for themselves, children are proud of them. They like to display them on their shelves and carry them everywhere. They may even begin to develop a love for good paper and fine binding.

I’m not saying that printed books will triumph in the end. I’m no better than anyone else at predicting the future. What I am suggesting is that older readers, excited about their Kindles and iPads, have become strangers to their first experience with books and reading. The newfangled devices are exciting because they appear to solve longstanding problems — the problems of older readers, who have spent a lifetime with books. Younger readers, who do not share that excitement and are not yet estranged from their own literary history, may not prefer ebooks to printed books after all.

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