An American Editor

June 4, 2010

Are Multifunction Devices a Threat to Young Readers?

The talk of the times in ebookland is about multifunction devices that not only allow you to check e-mail, surf the Internet, play games, and write memos, but also let you read ebooks — devices like Apple’s iPad. The discussion centers around whether multifunction devices (MFDs) or single-function devices (SFDs) are the better choice when looking for an electronic device to read ebooks.

When it comes to adults whose habits are already set, I’m not convinced that the answer boils down to anything more than a one’s preference. Right now I want an SFD; when I am reading, I want to read and not be distracted by anything else. I already am overwhelmed by e-mail at work; I don’t need to spend my leisure time dealing with it, too.

The real question — and the one that is generally not being addressed — is whether MFDs or SFDs are better for those just beginning their reading career: Do I want a 10-year-old to be exposed to the distractions of an MFD or focused on reading by using a SFD? How do we teach a child the love of reading? How do we teach a child reading for reading’s pleasure? Can a child learn to love reading when the lure of games and Internet surfing are just a screen touch away?

We already know that too much TV time, too much video game playing, too much texting are changing our society — and not necessarily for the better. Those of us who professionally edit for a living see the poor writing that seems to be the result of too little emphasis on literacy fundamentals and too little attention paid to creativity skills. (For one example, see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!)

To be a successful reader requires concentration. One needs to concentrate on the immediate words while retaining what preceded the words of immediate focus. Reading requires cognitive skills, focus, and the ability to exclude outsiders from intruding. Reading stimulates imagination and creativity, which are nurtured by concentration.

Recall the last passage you read that was rich with description that you were putting together in your mind, when — the telephone rang, the doorbell buzzed, your child called you, your spouse asked about dinner, or you heard the “you’ve got mail” chime. Think about what was lost, how it needed to be recreated as if never previously created.

MFDs are an invitation to antsy reading. It has been 5 minutes since you checked your e-mail; perhaps that long-awaited Viagra ad has arrived. Yes, this particular passage in Moby Dick is difficult to follow, so maybe a few minutes of Internet surfing will revive the thought process. If we adults can’t stay focused long enough to devote concentrated time to reading, how can we expect our children to do so?

Children are already subject to distraction. How many times have you heard the plaintive cry, “boring”? Yet, I think most of us would agree that the ability to read and to stay focused on what we are reading is the difference between learning and not learning, between subjection and freedom. (Remember that in the antebellum South one of the prohibited acts was for a slave owner to teach slaves to read and write. Why? Because reading and understanding would open the world to the slave and make the slave discontent, possibly leading to insurrection. And think about why this reluctance to educate was carried on in the subsequent Jim Crow era.) Reading is the key to freedom, for if the mind is free, the soul is free. If imagination is cultivated, it leads to change and progress.

MFDs are really not conducive to gaining these skills. The MFD provides the ability to escape from intellectual difficulty at the flick of a button. And what child won’t take the easy way out when given the opportunity? Yet, it is the facing of and the overcoming of these reading challenges today that will enhance the child’s life tomorrow. Too much of one’s future is dependent on reading skills to ignore them.

Consequently, MFD devices like the iPad are, I think, adult-only devices. They should carry a warning label to parents such as, “WARNING: Use of the iPad discourages concentrated reading and is not recommended for anyone younger than 16 years of age.” (Such a warning would both alert parents to the problems of MFDs for their children and self-fulfill Steve Jobs’ belief that people don’t read and thus the iPad is not really a reading device.) Given the choice, I prefer the SFD for the young child, as well as for myself.

Reading is a pleasure. A well-written book transports me to places I have never been, can never go, will never go; it gives me experiences that I would not otherwise be able to experience; it lets me live in someone else’s shoes, albeit for a moment. But for a book to accomplish these things, it must stir my imagination and keep me focused — there must be few (preferably no) interruptions. An SFD aids this by not distracting me, by not encouraging me to check e-mail, surf the Internet, play a game, or do a little bit of waiting work.

MFDs have their place in the adult world, but I think they are a disservice to young, developing children who should be encouraged to read because of the importance of the reading skill in our world. SFDs, I think, are better suited for this task. This is not to say that a MFD doesn’t have an educatory role, too, but perhaps not when reading is the goal. Maybe the solution is an MFD that works as an MFD in every mode but reading mode; when in reading mode, it acts as if it were an SFD. It is something to consider.

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