Turning New Pages

If, like me, you count among the simple pleasures of life browsing the shelves of a brick and mortar bookstore, you were deeply disappointed to learn recently that the Borders chain is going out of business.  Here in Louisville, the loss of Borders is a double-whammy:  The chain had moved into the physical spaces once occupied by the beloved and now departed local bookseller, Hawley-Cooke. Even with Borders’ closing, we’re fortunate here to still have the fiercely independent Carmichael’s Books, with two cozy stores in which book lovers can browse, chat, and meet authors to their hearts’ content.

That said, I write sadly about the demise of Borders in the same summer that I’ve been shopping for my first e-reader.  The irony is not lost on me.  But how convenient to be able to download digital books in seconds, carry them in one compact device as I travel, and then not have to find a space for them on my home or office bookshelves! Of course, none of the e-readers I’ve looked at has that new book smell, the sound of a new binding being prodded open, the feel of a smooth or woven or slick page between thumb and index finger, or the weight to the right or to the left that instantly signals how much I’ve read and how many more pages I have left to savor.

A good friend who also happens to be a writer (and who owns and loves an e-reader) recently told me about a wonderful event that she’d attended in a public school classroom: A community service organization in which she and her husband are active members had donated funds to a midwestern inner city elementary school to purchase new books. None of the children is this particular classroom had ever owned a book, and were beyond excited about the prospect that each would receive a personal copy of the book the teacher had planned for the class to read together.

On the day that my friend was there, the teacher brought into the classroom the large shipping box that contained the books. He made great ceremony of slitting open the packing tape, opening the cardboard flaps, and reaching into the box to gently remove the first copy. He held it for a moment, looking at the cover, then opened the book and, nose to print, inhaled the scent of the fresh pages. The teacher then closed and put aside his copy, and invited his young students to approach the box one by one to take their books. As each child came forward, he or she exactly mimicked the teacher’s actions–gingerly grasping a book, holding it, looking at the cover, and then opening it and sniffing the pages. What a marvelous first encounter with a brand new book that each child could literally hold and admire without benefit of batteries!

Now, I believe that just as movies didn’t kill live theater, television didn’t eliminate radio, and cable TV didn’t supplant cineplex movies, so too e-books will not destroy even the deliciously tactile world of paper books. Experts argue that, in fact, the easy availability of digital books is actually expanding, not diminishing publishing, with audiences eager for ever more writing to consume. The possibilities of digital reading are exciting–pulling up extra photos and illustrations, jumping to word definitions and related hot links and so on–stimulating the senses and transforming the experience of reading in new and different ways.

But, acknowledging the distinct assets of both digital and hard copy print, how can we ensure that these will both continue to exist for young readers? As a parent or educator, what has been your experience so far with books, e-readers or some combination of the two with your children or students? What are your recommendations for efficiently and effectively blending digital and hard copy reading experiences? And what have been your own experiences as a reader in the digital age? Let me know, and I’ll share comments in a future post. And in all media, happy summer reading!

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