Can Electronic Reading Devices Replace Classroom Texts?September 25, 2009 | Owen Edwards
And now a few words about the book, that ancient medium we've all encountered, with ink on paper pages, a front and back cover, and pleasure, or knowledge, or provocation, or even a certain necessary tedium stored within.
These words are inspired by hearing from my editor at Smithsonian magazine, a thoroughly literate woman, that she recently purchased an electronic, wireless reading device called a Kindle, and loves it.
These words are also inspired by the current push by California's governor to have many textbooks converted to electronic form. My own wife has begun thinking that having a Kindle would be a great way to avoid packing her suitcase with half a ton of books on our trips to Europe, and she may be right about that.
But it occurs to me that there's some metaphoric connection between Kindle -- a word whose first meaning is "to light a fire" -- and the Ray Bradbury book (and François Truffaut film) Fahrenheit 451, which predicted a future in which all books are methodically burned.
It turns out that the book in its old-school form may be threatened not by the heat of flames but rather by the much less incendiary dance of electrons and photons.
I'm well aware that there are all sorts of worthy arguments for a tectonic shift (no pun intended) from printed paper to words on a portable screen -- economics, up-to-date currency, and, for schools, a medium that most young people are entirely comfortable with. But the increasing rate of technological change that makes the Kindle and similar wireless digital readers possible also presents a serious problem.
Think about those Super 8 home movies your father so annoyingly made and that you, eventually realizing that they were irreplaceable memories, had transferred to tape. That was back when videotape was the latest, greatest storage medium. Do you have a videotape player now? I don't. It followed the film projector into the garage sale queue when I bought a DVD player.
So all those home movies I had put onto tape now have to find a new home on disk. And it will be a temporary home, at best, because a newer next thing will replace the DVD just about a week after I have paid for yet another transfer.
So let this be said for the words-on-paper book: It may be sooo yesterday, but it's also sooo tomorrow. I have sat in a Greek monastery, reading -- or trying to read -- a codex written on vellum 18 centuries ago. But I wonder if anyone a decade from today will be able to read the words I'm writing now, words that will end up on paper only if someone bothers to warm up the printer.
My children will, however -- should they ever want to -- have a trove of my printed magazine pieces and books. These relics of the golden age of publishing may not survive for centuries, but they should still be readable by my grandchildren.
After all, every electronic medium relies for storage on plain old magnetism. And magnetism has a host of enemies, just like the elastic in old tube socks.
My hope for the antique technology of the traditional book is simple: that amid all the gee-wizardry of wireless, paperless, boundless libraries, the printed, nonelectronic object that has transported humanity's wisdom, wit, wickedness, and wistfulness from one generation to the next still will find a place in the hearts and hands of students.
It may be too nostalgic to wish that kids will read Kidnapped under the covers by flashlight, as I did. But what I do pray for to the spirit of Johannes Gutenberg is that the rustle of pages, the smell of paper, the elegance of type, and the anticipatory joy of reading "Chapter One" will not be lost to the Wii Generation.
Do you see Kindles in your classroom in the future? Please share your thoughts.