Should Children Read From Digital Paper?

A family friend wrote this on her tumblr page:

i am torn, because i want grace to read and i feel like she would be more inclined to read on an e-reader with a touch screen rather than on the pages of an actual book. i myself would prefer the paper book, and am a bit anti-e-reader, but in a recent debate over whether or not to let her play a video game (instead of watch tv), i think an e-reader would be my top choice over anything else. thoughts?

I wrote her a long explanation about e-reader pros and cons, various options and opportunities there are. A great deal of words were spent on this without addressing the actual direct question. This is going to be a better exploration of that issue and the greater question of ebooks. The technical information will follow in a later post.

To answer the question “should children read from e-readers?” you need to ask another question: “will an e-reader help your child read more?” Yes? Then they definitely should use it. The more a child reads, the better off they will be in all parts of life. Reading helps develop and expand the mind in a way almost nothing else will. Even the subject matter isn’t overly critical. It is better to read garbage like Twilight than nothing at all. Everyone has to start somewhere. There is always more time to graduate to better literature.

The presentation of a digital book does not really matter. Just like the paper of a physical book does not matter. With few exceptions, the physical presentation of a book is not critical to the experience. It is the medium on which content is delivered. The best analogy is music – for most of it, it does not matter if you listen on vinyl, mp3 or cd. It is all the same notes, the same words.

A story is not the pages it is written on. In fact, it is not even the words it is written with. A story is the experience of reading. A band without an audience may be making noise, but are they making music? Without the reader, the story is merely words on a page, digital or otherwise. It is the reading that gives it a life, a presence all its own.

So let your child read an ebook. Let them read a comic book. Let them read the newspaper, the encyclopedia, the back of the cereal box. Reading gives a child wings to explore not only their own world, but infinite worlds behind this one. Whatever avenue helps them best do it, let them read. The universe awaits their exploration.

-That is all.


11 thoughts on “Should Children Read From Digital Paper?

  1. Lucas Bell says:

    I would actually like to hear about how her conversation about letting her child play video games actually go. I have thought about it since my coworkers have talked about buying games for their children. I realize how different I was when I started playing very violent games compared to other kids. I think I was mature enough and smart enough that it wasn’t that big of deal. Since I didn’t have that problem, its almost hard to think about what I would do when I actually have kids. I think the big solution is to play video games with your kids, and to learn about games and actually know what your kids can handle.
    As for the eReader, I wish I had one as a teenager, I lugged so many big novels that the thin eReader would have been a god send. Also I am sorry but content of a book does matter in a sense. The child needs to enjoy what they are reading. I recently talked to high school friend who said they actually now enjoy reading since they got out of high school since it wasn’t required and they found something they liked.

  2. Nick Bell says:

    I was not a part of the video game conversation, so I can’t really say. I’ll ask her next time we get together though. I am curious as well.

    You were helped a great deal in dealing with mature video games for two factors. One by having two video game playing older siblings. We helped filter a lot of what you saw, exposing you in stages. You went from hearing about games to watching games to playing games. Before you ever picked up a controller, you had a culture of how to deal with what happens in the game. You were emotionally prepared to deal with the violence, the mature themes, etc.

    The second relates to the topic at hand: you were a reader. You were exposed to a wide variety of content, most of it handled far more maturely than most video games. Look at Salvatore’s Homeland. That covers racial superior, slavery, gender discrimination, violence, culture war, religion. Relatively heavy stuff. Pretty easy to handle the over-the-top violence of GTA at that point. You were not confused about what is reality and what is fiction, having practiced that skill so strongly with novels.

    As for content not mattering, I was referring to a parent trying to dictate to their child what to read. I feel you should let your kid read whatever ze wants, as long as ze is reading. For exactly the reason you brought up: people will love reading far more when they read things that interest them.

  3. Mom says:

    Nick, I enjoyed Luke and your writings today…in fact, I am going to steal your last paragraph…that starts Let them read…..etc. to put on my homework sheet for parents.
    I remember getting Liz hooked more on reading by buying her every Garfield book I could. Eventually she moved on.

  4. well! i have finally had a chance to read this, and i will respond to a few points:
    1) i DO think the medium in which a book is delivered, matters. just as i’m sure musicians might say that it matters whether it is played on vinyl or cd or mp3, because the consumer is consuming more than just the object itself – also the experience. i go to john king books in detroit because i want to find a story within those books, i want the experience of living in a thousand histories and touching these books that have touched so many others, rather than the instant satisfaction of buying a new book on my kindle as soon as i finish the current one. now, that said, i realize the point of a book is to read it more than it is to experience the context in which said book is found, and so you have a great arguement for letting children read/encouraging them to read above all else…but i also fear that the experience gets lost in the benefit of efficiency, which is what i do not want to see happen, and why i am not an ereader person. i LIKE the feel of a book in my hands. i would not like to read on an ereader, no matter how wonderful or convenient they are. grace, however, probably would.

    in terms of video games (in the comments), she’s just 3 and hasn’t dealt with violent games yet. she plays kirby and mario party and diego and zelda….i’m sure she will find herself wholly immersed in the world of video games soon, but i don’t mean the world of gamers or whathaveyou in which she is spending an unhealthy amount of time playing a crudely violent game.

    oh gosh, i’m falling asleep as i type. sorry. thanks for this, nick!

  5. Nicholas Lester Bell says:

    I did say that the medium doesn’t matter “with exceptions.” Most music is the same regardless of how you listen, and most books are the same in any form. Old used books, books who have lived long lives before you picked them up, those ARE the exceptions. They have a presence beyond just their words.

    You see similar experiences with a lot of more literary books. Books with special art, interesting paper, special format, these are best experienced in physical form. A good example is The Avian Gospels by Adam Novy. It LOOKS like an old school bible, down to the gold edging on the pages. That is something an ebook version would never capture.

    But these kinds of books are the minority. The vast majority of books, especially those books bought new from the store, have a near identical experience in digital format. Buying a fantasy novel from Amazon in paperback or Kindle format will probably net the same experience, at least for most people. The physical form simply doesn’t add any unique experience in and of itself.

  6. Nicholas Lester Bell says:

    I am quite interested in your idea that there is an experience in the physicality of the book and that the physically creates a benefit that you enjoy. You do not want to give them up for efficiency. I understand and respect that.

    I am the opposite. More often than not, the physicality of the book is my enemy. As Luke noted, it makes the books hard to carry around. A big book is hard to read, especially in my favorite position of lying on my back with the book above my head. If you are like me and enjoy alternating between books, you must bring multiple ones with you everyone. The Kindle gets no bigger or heavier regardless of how many I stuff in there.

    The lose of the physicality has given another benefit as well: I can mark up my books as much as I want, without ruining them. I can highlight, take notes, save special sections digitally. Even better, my Kindle syncs these to the web, making it easy to find and use them in the future.

    So to me, the e-reader is an escape from a weight that was holding me down. I understand for you, that is not the case. Luckily for you, I do not imagine physical books are going to disappear any time soon.

  7. i get that. i really do. for some reason, i do better with the tangible choice in which books shall i bring…maybe it is the part of me that crumbles under the presentation of too many choices? maybe not. i’d probably be fine with a kindle. i just really like pen and paper and touch and texture…..but i can absolutely understand the desire to have something that meets YOUR needs, especially in reading in that position. it is the one thing about books that bothers me – i cannot seem to find a good position for reading in bed. 🙂

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