For my mother's 79th birthday later this month, her four children are going to give her an e-reader. We have yet to decide which one to give her, but she's very keen to join this trend. As a frequent traveler, and avid reader, she finds that she's always lugging 12 hard-cover books wherever she goes (often London to visit me!). So she'd like to lighten her load. Apparently, several of her friends already have e-readers and they are all thrilled with them.
I have mixed feelings about this present. On the one hand, as someone who -- by her own admission -- barely has running water and electricity, my mother is not exactly what you'd call techno-savvy. So there is a dragging-her-into-the-21st century quality to this gift, which, as someone who spends all day online, I welcome with open arms.
On the other hand, I'm also wary of the onslaught of e-readers. I worry about what happens to our society when we no longer read those great artifacts of the 20th century: books.
To that end, here are five reasons why I think it's important to keep reading books:
2. Books are good for our children's brains. Of course, just because you read books in an e-reader doesn't mean that you necessarily lose access to your imaginative thought process. It's just that you run a greater risk of doing so (if said object also provides access to your e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts, which many e-readers do.) But there's another reason that having actual books lying around is a good thing: New research highlighted by Salon's Laura Miller shows that book owners have smarter kids. According to a study recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, for example, children growing up in homes with many books get three years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents' education, occupation, and class. Wow.
3. Books keep libraries open. I recently made an impassioned appeal for why libraries are good things. In brief, I argued that libraries enhance children's learning, they provide crucial social skills and they are instrumental for democracy. If we do away with books, we will gradually lose the library as a pivotal educational and cultural resource.
4. Books facilitate book groups. On a much smaller scale, you could also argue that the rise of the e-reader portends the death of book clubs (which themselves are increasingly moving online). Again, there's no logical reason that it has to play out this way. You could certainly read your book in Kindle then go discuss it in person. And I've got nothing against virtual book groups as a way of building community. But there's something wonderful about sitting down in a small group and talking about books -- sometimes thumbing through the actual pages together. My fear is that as books become disembodied from social settings, like libraries and book clubs, they'll become just one more thing to "flip to" -- like the weather or our Twitter updates -- rather than the basis for sustained interrogation and discussion.
5. Books enhance the social value of reading. Which brings us to what Verlyn Klinkenborg recently referred to on the New York Times op-ed page as the "social value of reading." As Klinkenborg notes, the entire impulse behind something like Amazon's Kindle is that you cannot read a book unless you own it first. There's a creeping commercialization of reading that kicks in once you start using an e-reader that cuts against the notion of the book as part and parcel of the public sphere. One of the reasons we need libraries (and book clubs) is because -- in providing shared access to books, they open up the possibility of a body of common knowledge and a collective discourse around that knowledge. Kill off book reading and you slowly chip away at that common framework.
In a world as fragmented as the one we live in, I'm not sure we can afford to do that.
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