I like technology. A lot. My gadget closet includes an iPhone 4, an iPad, an iMac, and a Kindle Fire. It also contains a host of cameras. I like both the simplicity and the interactivity of modern technology. I like being able to pick up any device and know instinctively how to use it, and that wasn’t always the case. Figuring out how to program a VCR or set the clock on the microwave used to require spending time with the instruction manual. Nowadays, devices don’t come with instruction manuals as much as they come with instruction cards with illustrations of the device and the official name for the buttons.
My son likes technology as well. He can work every gadget that I have and needs very little assistance. Even though he’s not reading yet, he has even learned to identify the “play” button for the games that he likes at Nicktoons. At night when we read to him, though, we haven’t used any of these devices since I tried reading him a story on the iPad and found it too distracting for bedtime. While the interactivity encouraged through fabulous iPad books like The Three Little Pigs (Nosy Crow), Jack & The Beanstalk (Ayars Animation), The Tale of Peter Rabbit (PopOut! Loud Crow Interactive), and Cozmo’s Day Off (Ayars Animation) is wonderful, I have found that at bedtime, these books encourage busyness in a way that I find unhelpful.
During the day, I think that my son’s ability to help the big bad wolf huff and puff is a great way to involve him in the story. Finding golden eggs throughout the scenes in Jack and the Beanstalk and pulling tabs that show poor, frightened Peter trying to escape from Mr. McGregor also invest him in the story in ways that are fun for him. Usually, when he’s doing his reading in this way, I don’t really ask him very many questions about the story. If anything, I say things like, “why don’t you let her finish the story before you start pushing buttons.” I ask him the same sort of questions when he’s reading along to the story on his v-tech reader. The interaction matters more to him than the story.
Nothing beats the picture book for holding his interest and enabling him to concentrate on the story. When he was perhaps two, he could be held accountable for the plot in his picture books. He knew what a ball looked like then but when he wanted me to read Tad Hills’s Duck & Goose, he would hand me the book and say, “Egg Mommy? Egg?.” The story is about a Duck and a Goose mistaking a spotted ball for an egg and so when my son wanted me to read that story, he would hand me the book while referencing the plot as opposed to what he obviously knew as a ball from the picture. I could also ask my son to tell me the story of the book through the pictures, which he can more or less do. I also know that my son listens when we read traditional books because he can mostly supply the rhyming words in The Cat in the Hat as well as his most recent Dr. Seuss favorite I Wish that I Had Duck Feet. This hasn’t happened yet with the high tech stories (not including the three little pigs because this is a story we told him even before we purchased it as an electronic story). I like them, but they don’t seem to encourage reflection. They encourage being very present in the moment but they don’t seem to suggest anything beyond the immediate moment as if everything in a story is transparent.
My experience of e-reading on my tablet offers a similar experience. Even as someone who enjoys reading, one of the first things I do with any text is figure out how many pages are in it and then I see how many are in a chapter or section. E-readers don’t acknowledge such an aspect of reading. It’s like they think that readers don’t care about the page numbers. They imagine that all readers hold a book in the present and read straight into the future of the text, but reading is far more integrated into my experience of life than this. I sometimes think about tasks through units of five or ten pages in a book. So I might consider reading ten pages of a text if I have fifty pages total before I decide to get a snack. Then I’ll read ten more before taking the dish and washing it. Then I’ll read ten more before putting a load of clothes into the wash, and so on. You can’t do that when you have no idea where you are located in the text; so the experience can be quite disorienting. I also thought that the Kindle Fire was supposed to have traditional page numbers and that doesn’t seem to be the case. I was initially disoriented when I purchased my first Kindle and started in Chapter One, or somewhere like that, and that was considered the books “beginning.” I would never start with the first chapter as the beginning. With a traditional book, I at least thumb through all of the pages but I think the Dedication is important and I would certainly read the Prologue, the Acknowledgements, as well as any Epigraphs the author may have included. Now I know to go back from their beginning when I start reading.
In thinking about my son’s relationship to these technologies alongside my own experiences with e-reading, I am beginning to wonder what it means when reading gets transformed into an experience that might be called gaming, which is pretty much how I think of my son’s tablet reading; and mostly because he does. He has a Kung Fu Panda “book” for his v-tech reader, which includes games but my son thinks all of it is a game. So he will scroll through the dictionary words and watch the demonstrations and say that he is playing a game. So far it seems to me that such a manner of reading involves cluttering up reading with noise. When I’m trying to read a book while my son’s “reading” on one of our devices, there’s always noise of some kind that I have to fight through to hear myself think. It also seems to suggest that books can and should be considered toys. What happens to books when they become play things? As toys, do books become the childish things we put away when we become adults?
Traditional books encourage disciplined attention. Focus. I often hear people praising contemporary youth for their ability to use technology but what I would like to hear more of is a discussion of how we prepare them to focus and concentrate with disciplined attention in the face of it. I don’t read to my son using an iPad at night because it encourages him to be busy when I want him to be still. Traditional books promote intellectual activity without the physical frenzy of huffing and puffing, swiping, and pushing that my son busies himself with in using the iPad. Yeah, at bedtime, we put away childish things so that we might rest.