Apple's iPad is no book-killer: Author says technology is a threat to reading we can overcome
By: Katherine Paterson
Monday, February 1st 2010, 4:00 AM
Last week, Apple's Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, which will compete with Amazon's Kindle and seduce even more readers from the printed page to the touchscreen.
We recently learned that the average 8- to-18-year-old in America spends seven hours, 38 minutes a day, or 53 hours a week, with electronic media. Technology, which becomes more exciting by the day, seems to have taken over our lives. Are we witnessing the long anticipated death of the book?
It is a legitimate concern. But we are not the first generation to fear change of this kind. Plato had Socrates argue in "The Dialogues" that if people learned to read and write - if, in short, the populace became literate - poetry would disappear, for it was only in the oral tradition that poetry could be preserved properly.
Now it's easy to look back on that fear and laugh. Indeed, I didn't know what Plato and Socrates were all bent out of shape about until some years ago when I was invited to Fiji to speak to a conference of teachers from the South Pacific islands. These teachers didn't even have pencils and paper for their classrooms, much less books.
What could I say to them? Just tell them stories, someone said. But all my stories are about books, I replied, mostly my own books.
When my turn came to speak, I looked out at these beautiful people. I told them, as I had to, stories of books they had never heard of, and I began to feel something I cannot adequately describe - a powerful sensation from the audience that pulled from me what I knew was perhaps the best presentation I had ever given.
I couldn't understand what had happened until I realized that I had never before spoken to an audience who, having grown up in the oral tradition, truly knew how to listen.
That quality of listening is something lost that we will never in all probability retrieve, but we gained in that change and then in the invention of printing the gift of books and the art of reading.
When books were expensive and rare, people read them over and over again. But now there is so much available that few of us read in this intensive way.
This is where we who write for children have the advantage. For the child readers, and they are not an extinct species, still seem willing to take the time to give a book, in Robert Louis Stevenson's felicitous phrase, "a just and patient hearing."
I feel a sense of pity toward my fellow writers who spend their time writing for the speeded-up audience of adults. They look at me, I realize, with a patronizing air, I who only write for the young. But I doubt that many of them have readers who will read their books over and over again, who will create their own Terabithias to play out endless repetitions of beloved passages.
So it is not irrational to fear the current changes. Technology does pose a threat to the written word. Tweeting does not allow for intensive reading. Serious newspapers that give readers a full view of current events are, we are told, on their deathbeds. Throughout our culture, slogans seem to be increasingly replacing serious discussion.
This, then, becomes the question: When strangely abbreviated 140-character statements are streaming onto our screens and we get our information in sound bites from voices we agree with, will fewer and fewer of us truly be willing or able to read the kind of book that will nurture our souls or enable us to be responsible citizens?
It is as futile for us to fight technological advances as it was for Plato to battle literacy. Yet I have hope. I have seven grandchildren, all of whom are well-equipped with electronic gadgets. Yet all of them are readers - because their parents are readers who have read to them, because they have teachers who care about literature and librarians who introduce them to books they will enjoy and be enriched by.
So, do I truly fear that books will become obsolete? No. Recently I heard an interview with a leader in the electronics industry. He was asked if he thought that printed books would now die.
No, he answered. Even if the book had never been created and we had all the electronic devices and media we now have, someone would have to invent a book. It is the perfect technology.
Katherine Paterson, author of "Bridge to Terabithia," was recently appointed the national ambassador for young people's literature by the Librarian of Congress, in conjunction with the Children's Book Council and Every Child a Reader.