Kindles, Kids, and other Electronic Devices

While they were busily working on some braided trivets before Christmas, one of the 4th-6th grade girls I help teach on Wednesday nights casually mentioned that she and all her classmates at a local public school would be getting iPads after the first of the year.  Woah, baby! This led to a somewhat heated exchange between the girls on the merits of reading books electronically versus on paper. One stalwart fourth grader said, "Well, I can't imagine a world without books!"

I have to agree. Books fill our house. I love beautifully illustrated new books, beloved old tomes, and  out-of-print treasures. And yet...

A weird thing has happened in the past year:  I've become a Kindle convert. At least for certain purposes. For my last birthday my parents, non-technical septuagenarian bibliophiles and also  avid Kindle users, gave me my own e-reader. I was interested, but skeptical. What could this little thing offer me that I couldn't get better from "real" books? (The New York Times refers to them as "dead tree books!") Plenty, it turns out. In a nutshell, here are the things that have endeared my little black gadget to me:

1. It makes for the best bedtime reading. Lightweight and easy to read. Unbeatable for aging eyes. Tim and I have spent more time reading to each other than we have in years because the Kindle makes it so easy.

2. Storage space. My Kindle holds up to 3500 books. That's probably nearly equal to the books we have spread throughout our house.

3. It's economical. So many public domain books are available free! Some of the authors I've downloaded include E. Nesbit, Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thornton Burgess, and so many more. You can download books by H. E. Marshall (Our Island Story, This Country of Ours, etc.) and poetry like Gelett Burgess's  Goops. Amazon "sells" some public domain books for free, and others are available at sites like Gutenberg. Classics such as Spurgeon's devotionals are inexpensive. Converting from EPub or PDFs to the Kindle MOBI format is a cinch when it becomes occasionally necessary.

4. It's terrific for travel. What a great replacement for my old habit of taking multiple volumes along on even a short trip. And nothing beats an e-reader for that boring airport and plane time.

5. Mostly hands free reading allows you to do something else with your hands like hold a baby, dry your hair, or knit!

6. Useful for holding other documents such as knitting patterns and PDFs of Peter's distance race results.

7. Electronic storage of books makes out-of-print books much more accessible. Book only stay in print as long as enough readers purchase them. Some old books have become very difficult to find, but if someone uploads a text to Gutenberg or Googlebooks, it's available for everyone.

8. Amazon has fabulous customer service. We had a sad story involving two boys wrestling on parents' bed, a smashed Kindle screen, and a very kind Amazon customer service agent.  "Yes, we understand that accidents do happen," he said. I tried to argue with him, pointing out that it was completely our fault. Upshot: free replacement device received two days later.

Does this mean I'm ready to give up on paper books or unilaterally endorse e-readers? Not by a long shot. I'm still routinely ordering new and (wonderfully smelling, slightly musty, crusty, well-loved hardbacks) used books especially from dear old I can't really imagine a world without physical books, and I don't foresee that happening any time soon.

Kindles work terrifically for any book that you read straight through. If you need to "flip" back and forth, you can bookmark sections, but this is somewhat cumbersome. So I'm using my Kindle for daily Bible reading, but not for Bible study. It works great for reading fiction or linear nonfiction, but not so much for a book you might want to jump around in like a cookbook or craft instruction book. (Though I do sometimes put PDF files of knitting pattens on the Kindle.)

But what about kids and e-readers? The Redeemed Reader Blog has an interesting interview with Mike Sugimoto, a film studies prof at Pepperdine about this whole topic. Mr. Sugimoto takes a pretty dim view of children using e-readers and other devices. He says, "The research I’ve uncovered – and there is quite a bit now – is actually fairly strong against ereaders and computers, in general, specifically in terms of developing a childhood love of reading." Some of Mr. Sugimoto's criticisms, while aimed generally, do not apply equally to e-readers and tablets, however. The ability to find distractions or surf the web is much more limited on a basic e-reader than on an iPad or Kindle Fire, for example.

The younger the child, the less place I think e-readers, computers, and any electronic devices ought to have in their lives. "Real" books, read with Mom, Dad, or big brother or sister, beat an e-book hands down for little ones. Young independent readers are also best off with actual ink on paper books. I don't think you can beat the complete package of holding a book in your hands, seeing different types of print face, experiencing the richness of illustrations on paper, feeling the pages turn in your hand, and even smelling old paper that's been in someone's home for years. However, once a child has become an avid reader, the source of the printed word becomes less significant than the availability. So, in my opinion, e-readers can have a utility for older children, just as they do for adults. (I should note, however, that while my kids occasionally read something on one of the two e-readers in our home, their preference is for tree-books.)

Digital books have some interesting applications for homeschoolers, too. While I was working on this post, I received my latest batch of review materials for Practical Homeschooling magazine. Most intriguing in this set is a series of CDs from Heritage History. This company offers a number of civilization specific libraries (including Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, British Middle Ages, British Empire, Early America, and a Young Readers set) all based on sets of digital public domain books. You'll find volumes written by esteemed authors such as H.E. Marshall, Howard Pyle, M.B. Synge, Jacob Abbott, James Baldwin, Andrew Lang, Helene Guerber and Alfred Church. Each CD comes with 40-80+ books, each one in available in PDF, MOBI, and EPub files. Students can read them on Kindles and other e-readers, iPads, directly on a regular computer, or print out as entire books. In addition, the full curriculum disks have maps, timelines, and summaries of the historical eras covered in that particular CD. At $25 for a Complete Curriculum CD or $20 for a library, these CDs are a phenomenal value. Even though a number of the books are available free online, many others are not. The ancillary material including book summaries and reading recommendations make these collections even more valuable. Heritage History also has lists of their books that are used in other curricula such as Tapestry of Grace, Ambleside, and Living Books.

In my opinion, it shouldn't be a strict either-or decision. I sure hope that "real" physical books continue to be published, read, and treasured by future generations. But digital books can also fill some useful roles, and I am glad to have one more option for reading wonderful old (and newer) books.

"But what's going to happen to the future of book burnings with digital books? What are they going to do? Get lots of people together with their e-readers and say, 'OK, now. One, two, three - DELETE!'?"  - Heard recently from one of my children


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