An American Editor

July 23, 2012

eBook vs. pBook: Imaginative Discovery

Before anyone jumps to an unwarranted conclusion, let me say upfront that I really like ebooks for reading fiction (but not for nonfiction) and that given my personal preference, I would read fiction almost solely in ebook form. However, …

I have been observing the reading habits of a young child of a friend, sometimes getting a closeup view while babysitting. What I have noticed is that he seems to interact more with pbooks than ebooks. I have been thinking about that for several months now and I think the reason is what I call imaginative discovery.

The ebooks give him animation, which he does find entertaining. But I think he finds the animation to be similar to how I find a movie: great entertainment but it is someone else’s imagination that shapes the scene, not mine. I especially noticed this with the Lord of the Rings movies. Peter Jackson did a great job imagining the story, and although I enjoyed the movies greatly, I also remember commenting to my son how this scene and that scene were not how I imagined them when I was reading the book. With the Lord of the Rings movies, Peter Jackson did all the imagining for me; I had to exercise no creativity at all.

When my friend’s toddler reads a pbook, he often flips back-and-forth, or even folds over pages so that he can see two illustrations simultaneously. Sometimes he takes crayons and colors black-and-white illustrations or adds another head to a character or changes the colors used. Occasionally, he adds to the illustration additional characters or images. He interacts freely with the pbook and lets his imagination be his guide. He either seems to find that difficult to do with an ebook or is not motivated to interact with the ebook in a similar way.

It is this interaction that I call  imaginative discovery. I think imaginative discovery is a very important component of reading, especially for those who are just beginning the lifetime adventure that reading can bring about. When adults watch a movie or play a video game, they tend to become absorbed into whatever action is occurring before them. They do not independently discover new things or use their imagination. They follow the creator’s storyline.

In contrast, when an adult reads a novel — whether ebook or pbook — the adult uses his or her imagination to fill in what is missing, whether it be dialogue or visualization of the scene or how a character looks. But adults do so from a lifetime of experience. As we grow from childhood to adulthood our sensory experiences grow and we are increasingly able to imagine that first kiss, or how a teenager feels when bullied, or how slimy a frog’s skin is. Because we have built these experiences, it really doesn’t matter whether the book we are reading is a pbook or an ebook — we bring these experiences to both. Thus our preference for an ebook over a pbook is really guided by other factors, such as cost, ease of reading, ability to carry hundreds of books simultaneously without back-breaking strain, and the like.

But the young child doesn’t have that lifetime of experience to bring to the reading experience. He (or she) is only beginning on the road to building the tools needed for imaginative discovery. Thus the tactile capabilities of a pbook may be more important than all of the enhancements that an ebook can bring.

Even for an adult, an ebook can be a failure. Consider these two books: Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews (2002) edited by Houman Sarshar (ISBN 0827607512) and Five Hundred Years of Book Design (2001) by Alan Bartram (ISBN 0300090587). Each of these books relies heavily on visuals; that is, the illustrations — their detail and their color — are important to the tale being told. In neither case would reading the book on a Kindle or a Nook be what I would consider a quality experience. Not that they couldn’t be read on such a device; just that the experience would not be as fulfilling as when read in pbook form. The books are really designed for the pbook experience.

Just as those books are really designed for the pbook experience, I am increasingly convinced that the reading experience for beginning readers should be a pbook experience rather than an ebook experience. The reason is not because ebooks cannot be excellent children’s books, but because they are not able to give the emerging imagination the ability to imaginatively discover. The enhanced ebook’s experiences of such things as alternative endings or the ability to choose a different outfit for a character make for a wonderful tale, but limit the child’s creativity to a set of predetermined (by an adult) choices, when, instead, the child should be encouraged to design his or her own creations.

The pbook for children encourages a child to start with what is in front of him or her and to then rename, redo, recast, reshape the story as they see fit. Should they want to rename a character from Oscar to Annafrannabumpkin, the child can with a pbook; with an ebook, they are limited by whatever the programmer has opted to include. It is easy to add a second horn to a unicorn and call it a duocorn in a pbook; not so easy with an ebook that doesn’t have the option already built-in.

eBooks have a place in the scheme of reading, but I do not think they are yet ready to replace pbooks as the source of reading material for children, simply because of the limitations inherent in ebook creation that stifle the imaginative discovery that is essential to the mental growth of children. When it comes to reading, what to read and how to read it (i.e., ebook or pbook) should always be based on what is best for the reader, and in the case of children, on how well imaginative discovery is promoted.

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.

June 1, 2010

Enhanced eBooks & the Death of Imagination

Enhanced ebooks, TV, videos, video games all share a common feature — they stifle imagination and creativity. Enhanced ebooks have a proper role to play in educating people, but perhaps not in educating the very young.

OK, I admit I’m old and that I can remember back to the birth of television, when The Lone Ranger was the hot show. And I can remember picking up a book and letting the words create a picture in my mind. These pictures were born from my understanding of what the words meant. Authors had to create worlds in writing that could be recreated by me. When Robin Hood described Maid Marian, I recreated her in my mind. One day she could be as short as me, the next twice my height. As I grew and aged, so did my mental picture of Maid Marian — all because as I experienced life and gained new insights into my world, I could apply those insights — via my imagination — to Maid Marian and to Robin Hood. 

Alas, I fear that “enhanced” ebooks will take away the last bastion of imagination. We already know that videos and movies hurt the imaginative process. We watch a movie and we no longer have to imagine the effect of a sword thrust through the chest — it is given to us graphically. We do not have to imagine what happens when a soldier picks up a live grenade and it explodes — the movie tells us clearly. Avatar left nothing for the viewer to self-create, which may be why it was so successful. We do not have to imagine because someone else has already imagined for us. How many of us had one picture of Robin Hood — a picture we created via our imagination when we first read the book — that was supplanted by Errol Flynn’s depiction of Robin Hood after we saw the movie in our youth?

Books — especially books for the preadolescent child — are the last bastion of imagination. When an author describes the heroine, we need to close our eyes and create that picture. We exercise our cognitive abilities. If the author describes a sword thrust to the chest, we imagine it within the limits of our experience and within the limits of our tolerance. These limitations, however, do not exist when we see the result displayed visually in a movie with ever increasing explicitness. (Do I really need to see the intestines falling out of a belly wound? Does it really add to the movie’s value?)

What made the Lord of the Rings trilogy so great? For those who read the books as children, it was the ability to create from Tolkien’s words the world of the hobbits and elves and other characters. We could create our own Gollum. Now, assuming someone actually reads the books after having seen the Peter Jackson interpretation, is the reader likely to create his or her own world based on Tolkien’s words or will they simply picture Jackson’s visuals? My experience suggests the latter. Will this not also be a problem for future Harry Potter fans? Won’t future readers conjure up Harry, Ron, and Hermione as the three stars of the movies?

Maybe this doesn’t matter for someone of my age, although I would like to think it does. (They do say that exercising the mind’s thinking processes is the most important thing one can do to thwart memory loss in old age.) But certainly it matters for the young who already face a dearth of opportunities to exercise their imagination. (Remember when the broomstick was your horse and it was your imagination that made it so? Now the broomstick looks like a horse?) Schools are test preparers and have no time to coddle imagination. Parents too often think quality time with their children is watching TV or playing a video game — imagination-numbing activities — rather than reading a book or playing a board game that requires thinking.

It isn’t that enhanced ebooks don’t have a proper place or role; they do. A biology text with video would be useful and probably enhance understanding. But I’m not convinced that enhanced fiction or non-science, -technical, or -math nonfiction ebooks are good for learners, especially young learners as a general proposition (there will always be exceptions to every rule).

I am particularly worried that enhanced ebooks will supplant the parental role with the very young, as TV and videos and video games do. Just as parents often turn to TV, videos, and video games to babysit their 3-year-old child, they may turn to enhanced ebooks. At least one bastion of creativity and imagination should be preserved. Parents need to spend more time with their children, especially in the preadolescent years, and that time should be encouraging use of the childrens’ imagination and brain power, not letting someone else’s imagination rule them.

What prompts my concern? A large-scale, long-running Canadian study that was reported in many U.S. newspapers and on the New York Times Health blog. The study didn’t address issues of imagination, but it seems to me that just as TV robs “effort control” skills, it also robs creative skills. In today’s hard-to-get-ahead world that often requires both parents to work just to keep from drowning, it is foolhardy to rely solely on parents to do what is right and necessary. (How many parents do you know who would be willing to cancel their cable TV so that they aren’t tempted to use TV as a babysitter? How many young children have their own cell phones?)

Publishers of ebooks need to step up to the plate and recognize that they do have a social responsibility. Today’s young are tomorrows’ readers and writers, both of which publishers will need. Rather than rushing everything possible to “enhanced ebook” status in hopes of propping up revenues, publishers should look to the their own future: If they cannot instill the desire to read in the young, they will have no future readers to sell books to.

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