The debate’s been going for some years now on whether e-readers are the future of reading. Early adopters evangelise on behalf of the gadgetry. Traditionalists talk about how you can’t replace the smell and feel of paper. We’ve even had this debate within my not-terribly-techy team at work, so it must be getting old by now. And yet I recently had an experience that shed new light on it for me.
I love my e-reader. The elegance of its design, the convenience of being able to carry hundreds, thousands of books in something the size of a slim paperback. If you’d told fourteen-year-old me that, two decades down the line, he’d be able to fit his whole library in his school bag he’d have been overjoyed. Never mind hoverboards and moon bases, that was the future I wanted. Looking at books through the eyes of an adult, or even the memories of a bibliophilic teenager, I’m sure this is the way to go.
But the other day I got an insight into a younger sort of reader, and why there’ll always be a place for paper. I don’t mean junior school kids, with their illustrated reference books and their well worn copies of Harry Potter. Not even the infants, with their wonderfully illustrated picture books. No, I’m thinking about the children who can’t even read yet, the wobbling toddlers first learning the joy of books.
The source of my insight was my niece, lets call her Ever-ready. Ever-ready is one and a bit years old. She’s seen her sister, the previously-mentioned Princess, reading books. She’s seen mummy reading them, and daddy, and that funny-looking Uncle Andy. And in the past few months she’s started to appreciate them for herself. At first, the words and pictures meant little to her. She knew that other people made noises at them, but I don’t think she’d connected the noises with the things on the page. What she got a kick out of, what first got her handling books for herself, was turning the thick cardboard pages of baby books. I could see satisfaction in her smile as she worked her way through from beginning to end. She wasn’t worried about the details. She didn’t, to the Princess’s shock, stop to take in every page. She just turned, and turned, and turned those pages, and suddenly books were within her grasp. They weren’t just something that was read to her. They were something she controlled.
Ever-ready has moved on already. She’s started recognising that certain pictures have certain noises, saying ‘moo’ when shown the cow, ‘baa’ for the sheep. She loves that too. But the thing that first drew her in was turning those pages, feeling ownership over the experience. It’s too long ago to remember, but I’m sure I must have felt that too, the thrill of page-turning leading to a life-long love of words.
When we talk about paper versus e-readers we do so through the lense of our adult lives. But if we pause to think about younger perspectives we’ll see that the future isn’t just micro-chips, or thin leaves between paper covers. The real future of reading is in those thick, cardboard pages, and in learning to make them turn.