Over at the Atlantic’s technology blog, Edward Tenner asks whether children will save printed books. A historian of technology (whose 1996 book Why Things Bite Back ought to be required reading for the uncritical cheerleaders of technological progress), Tenner points out that, despite the “consensus of many e-book enthusiasts and elegiac traditionalists alike” that the codex is doomed, responsible thought about the future requires “alternative scenarios.”
And one possibility is that a younger generation will reject the prized possessions, the revolutionary amazements, of an older generation. Your father could not believe the convenience of his Remington Lektronic shaver and your mother raved about her Touch-o-Matic electric can opener; you shave with a safety razor and crank your cans open. Tenner suggests that a “pro-book rebellion” is possible, though not inevitable. The success of Mad Men has cleared the closets of wide neckties.
Indeed, heeding the Baseball Crank’s warning that knowledge is not settled, one possibility is as good as another at this point. Many of the features that Kindle and iPad devotees brag about (what Ed Driscoll hails, for example, as “being able to read a book anywhere, and carry the digital equivalent of a massive stack of them onto an airplane”) may not seem all that remarkable or important in a few years.
Electronic reading devices are new devices for old readers. Younger readers do not come to books with the same personal history. In fact, their own history with books might lead them to prefer paper and binding. I’ve suggested as much before (here and here). Children first encounter books as physical things. Board books, lift-the-flap books, touch-and-feel books, pop-up books — their first books are three-dimensional objects that encourage children to explore them in all three dimensions. When they acquire their own books, the books they have selected for themselves, children are proud of them. They like to display them on their shelves and carry them everywhere. They may even begin to develop a love for good paper and fine binding.
I’m not saying that printed books will triumph in the end. I’m no better than anyone else at predicting the future. What I am suggesting is that older readers, excited about their Kindles and iPads, have become strangers to their first experience with books and reading. The newfangled devices are exciting because they appear to solve longstanding problems — the problems of older readers, who have spent a lifetime with books. Younger readers, who do not share that excitement and are not yet estranged from their own literary history, may not prefer ebooks to printed books after all.
Many thanks to Daniel Bloom for getting this whole discussion started.