By Rabia Alavi
I am sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, trying not to think about the painful session that awaits me. Next to me sits a four-year-old, an iPad mini on her lap. Though disapproving about children clinging to these devices everywhere they go, I am nonetheless impressed by the child’s speed and accuracy as she taps, scrolls, pinches and swipes the screen.
Her mother too is busy, engrossed in my kind of activity. She is reading a book – Paulo Coelho’s Manuscript found in Accra. For the wait to the dental chair, that seems like a bit too much philosophy for my liking. But then, who am I to decide what people read, and where – as long as they are holding physical books.
In the midst of loading a new game, poem or whatever on her iPad, the girl peeks into her mother’s source of captivation, and asks, “Mom, what is that?”
Mom replies distractedly, “Can’t you see? It’s a book.” And the little one persists, “Yes, I know it’s a book, but what does it do?”
The mother is clearly embarrassed by this question, and looks my way, for she knows that I am listening in. I give her a smile that, hopefully, gives away none of the disdain that I feel. She says to her child, as a way of explaining, “It’s like an iPad, only this one is made of trees.”
Mercifully, the child is already distracted by the poem she has been trying to load on YouTube. It is playing loud and clear now, much to the amusement or annoyance of others present in the waiting room.
My mind wanders to the lunchtime debate I had with a bunch of friends regarding the importance of physical books in this digital age, where e-books clearly are the rage. Why the little girl’s innocent query makes me think of that discussion, I am not sure. But I know for certain that although this child might not be reading an e-book as yet, she is already veered in that direction.
It is sad that most children of this iPad generation do not (and will not) know what a book can do for them. They will never understand the pleasure of holding a book and turning crisp, even worn out, pages as you read.
The older kids, who do enjoy reading – and there are plenty of them – want to utilize new technology like Kindle, or other e-book readers and tablets to do so.
And while book lovers like me rant and rave about the pleasures of holding a physical book or how wonderful the scent of new books is, the e-book generation talks about how easy it is to access them on the Internet. Or how portable they are and the most important fact – you don’t have to spend a penny to read them!
The respect for books has to be instilled in children from a very young age, and I don’t see many children growing up and being able to do this anymore.
We can cross that bridge when we get there, but even the present generation of parents finds it hard to set a good example when it comes to instilling the habit of reading at home. Hardly anyone has space for a small home library, where children can collect their favorite reads. Parents don’t make it a habit to read with or to their children because they just don’t have the time. Weekdays are too tiring, and weekends are spent socializing or doing household chores.
Even when they do want to encourage their children to read, parents often bring home books that are too difficult to read or understand, often honed on by peer pressure. So often have I heard a parent remark that their neighbor’s child can read ‘stage 4’ of a certain book series, while their child barely reads past ‘stage 2’. Attaching conditions to reading times makes them seem more like a chore rather than fun or relaxation.
Do little children need to have such free access to electronic gadgets – laptops, iPads and their equivalents, or even their parents’ cell phones? This is a question we should be asking ourselves. Are these devices replacing time previously reserved for books, and even making up for instances that should be spent in quality (parenting and) bonding activities?
It is certain that the love of reading is not coming to an end. But yes, this new technology might be something of a challenge for the physical book unless we show commitment to ensure that the children of tomorrow don’t have to ask what a book ‘can do’.