1. 17:09 29th Oct 2009

    Notes: 5

    ebooks: where are the wild things?

    What do e-books look like from the vantage point of bedtime?

    Reading’s deep roots in our consciousness are grown during the lengthy period we spend playing with books, looking at them, and hearing them read by loving adults. The symbiosis of reading with intimate domestic scenes is in part a product of the technologies that made inexpensive, colorful books possible. And as Maryanne Wolf discusses in her thought-provoking book Proust and the Squid, this relatively late-emerging nexus of print and childhood produces much of the framework—not only the cultural, but the cognitive—that makes our culture’s particular kind of literacy.

    Now technologies are changing. Where is bedtime reading in all of this? It occurs to me that despite the enormous commercial importance of the children’s book market, the new e-readers aren’t really designed with such reading in mind. Certainly one can read YA novels, fantasy books, and such on a Kindle or a nook—but this hardly begins to encompass the spectrum of the book in modern childhood. Despite its name, the Kindle is no kindergarten. The possibilities are legion, and I hope designers publishers will entertain many models. The notion of a kind of Kindle for kids, a Speak &Spell-esque plastic thingie that beeps and sings, frankly horrifies me. Kids don’t need opportunities to buy digital books, or to parrot answers in exchange for Skinneresque rewards like bleeps and jingles. Kids don’t need to read their way into markets and commercials; better is the feral, recursive, ever-growing jungle of the imagination that books can make.

    Perhaps e-reading for kids will work best if it’s disintermediated and incorporated into interesting objects of all kinds. The kind of thing I’m thinking of is represented well by Siftables, invented by David Merrill and Jeevan Kalinithi at the MIT Media Lab. Siftables are programmable blocks with displays, which can interact with each other to build stories or songs or games. (If you haven’t seen them, check out the embedded video; they’re amazing.)

    Maryanne Wolf worries that whatever comes next in reading won’t offer the same cognitive development as the book has given us in the modern era. Siftables are just one example of the beginnings of a solution. Of course, Siftables aren’t books (although I’m sure you’ll agree, the possibilties of a Siftables edition of Goodnight Moon, or Where the Wild Things Are, or some altogether new kind of children’s storybook experience, are pretty spectacular). But they seem to offer one way to offer a meditative, deeply immersive play with words, stories, and ideas that looks a lot like childhood reading. And failing that, or in addition to it, there’s nothing should keep us from lowering the lights and pulling out a battered copy of Where the Wild Things Are.


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    1. matthewbattles posted this