Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Kids & Kindles

Yesterday’s feature in the Boston Globe about little kids developing a penchant for state-of-the-art electronics such as iPads and iPhones caught my attention. The issue isn’t exactly relevant in our household – at 9 and 13, my kids are considerably older than the toddlers and preschoolers described in the story – and when the kids were that age, we didn’t have iPhones or iPads (and in fact still have just one iPhone in our household and no iPads).

Coincidentally, though, just the night before, I had for the first time purchased a book for Holly on my Kindle. And I didn't do that without a fair share of rumination as to whether it was appropriate for my nine-year-old to be reading on a Kindle.

But my guess is that many parents make the reluctant leap to letting their kids e-read the same way I did: Holly had just finished a book and wanted the next one in the series in order to complete the twenty minutes of nightly reading that her teacher requires. And while I acknowledge that this sounds demanding on Holly's part -- wanting one book and one book only -- I've become used to it from Tim. When he's in the middle of a series, no book except the next book in the series will do. Switching over to reading something else for the sake of convenience -- such as, there's a copy of it right over there on the bookshelf, whereas the book he wants is at the library or the bookstore and we won't be able to pick up a copy 'til tomorrow -- is an option not even worthy of consideration.

And in Holly's case, it wasn't only that she'd have to wait until the next day for me to go to the library: the book she wanted was a brand new release from a popular series, and getting a copy of this high-demand read would take a while.

So I let her order up a six-dollar copy on my Kindle, and thirty seconds later she was reading. I watched her and thought about what I had done. For myself, I'm absolutely a Kindle convert: I love the convenience of carrying as much reading material as I could possibly want -- novels, reference materials, magazines, newspapers, notes of my own -- all on one little piece of plastic that weighs less than a pound.

But the sight of kids using Kindles gives me pause. I've never agreed with adults who shy away from e-readers saying they can't imagine enjoying the experience of reading without the feel and smell of an actual book in their hands -- to me, reading is reading, and why should I have the inconvenience of newsprint on my fingers or the weight of a hardcover in my purse? -- but I'm a little unsure as to whether kids are absorbing the full experience of reading, when no book is in hand.

When a friend told me both her kids, ages 12 and 13 at the time, owned Kindles, I said to her, "I'm not sure my kids would know what they wanted to read if they didn't browse through the stacks at the library." But she told me her kids use the New York Times Book Review section on children's books for recommendations, or they order books by authors whose work they've enjoyed in the past, or they use the "Customers who bought this book also bought" tab on to get ideas about what to load onto their Kindles next.

Or they go to the library, browse through the stacks, and find something they want to read, just like my kids do. Then they order it on their Kindles.

It still seemed a little strange to me, and to some extent, that's the point made in the Globe story about toddlers and preschoolers using iPhones, iPads and similar devices. Surely Holly needs to be immersed in the sensory aspects of reading a book -- the slippery feel of the cover, the heft of the volume, the nubbly texture at the edge of thr pages -- before she's ready to skip that part and go electronic. And seeing her sit there poring over my Kindle screen didn't give me the same twinge of delight that seeing her immersed in a real book always gives me.

Still, it enabled her to read what she wanted to read at that very moment. Admittedly, that might make it more a lesson in instant gratification than literary appreciation. And when she finishes this book, I'll encourage her to find her next one the old-fashioned way, at a library or a bookstore. But for now, what matters to her is that she didn't have to wait even twelve hours to find out what happens next in her favorite series of the moment. And to me, that's a certain kind of passion that I’m more than happy to fuel, whether it finds its resolution on the page or on the screen.

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