Epistolary Day: Children and the Digital World

ReaderComeHomeDear Maryanne Wolf,

I used to be a restless kid, and yet I learned to read. It gave me a pathway into the life I have now, the writing life. Reading and writing together have helped me through troubled times, have helped me make sense of the world or question it or rail against its injustices.

Letter Five in your book made me profoundly sad for the children of tomorrow. You raise disturbing questions: what will digital media do to children’s malleable brains? Will their reading circuits be altered, and if so, how? You write about memory, and what it takes to form it, and how attention, grabbed in rapidfire sequence, detracts from the formation of a working memory.

Then I wanted to cheer when you wrote, in Chapter Six, of the incredible importance of reading to kids. Don’t move too fast to screens and devices, you write. You beg parents to embrace the endless rereading of a favorite book.

The first two years of the reading life, you say, should be the equivalent of Julian of Norwich‘s beautiful exhortation:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

How to make all manner of things well in the reading worlds of the young? The digital page is a fake. I know that, even as I use it here to reply to your book. I know I can use the computer and the phone as tools, but that’s only because because I learned to read with the real thing. I can switch in and out of the technology while not succumbing to its flaws. I’m lucky only because I’m old enough.

That real book, the tree-based object I have given my life to, is something that young children should feel the joy of “reading” with their whole bodies and older children should be allowed to read with their entire, undivided attention. Toddlers can’t put an iPad in their mouths. The Internet can’t begin to build a moral foundation for a teenager.

2 thoughts on “Epistolary Day: Children and the Digital World

  1. I am always intrigued by this question, and while I don’t know any of the brain science, every time I hear it raised I find myself asking this: Is our attachment to the “real” book similar to the attachment people had to pens and pencils when the typewriter came into use? I used to hear many writers say that the tactile contact of pen and hand to page was part of their creative process, that they had to do a first draft by hand.and couldn’t give up that way of approaching their work. I didn’t question them. I knew what they said was true . . . for them. But I seldom hear it now. And I, on the other hand, have always been handicapped when it came to writing by hand and was freed to be a writer by the typewriter and then even more so by the computer where I can change endlessly on the screen, never having to go back to retype. I think we have to be careful not to equate our familiarity with a medium with giving it some kind of ultimate value.

    I feel the same way when people bemoan that no one writes letters today. And yet young people choose to text rather than telephone. And when my friends and I are making plans the written words flow back and forth between us electronically the way penned notes did long ago when the post office delivered such mail multiple times a day. Isn’t that writing? And when I sit down to really “talk” to a friend with my fingers on a keyboard, isn’t that a letter?

    I, too, love physical books. Of course. But I think it’s important to stay far, far away from the assumption that electronic means of communicating with the written word are, somehow, less valid, less important, less real. What we don’t want to do is devalue the very solid ways in which the written word still communicates.

    And now that I’ve said all that, I may borrow my words back to use in one of my own blogs. Thank you, Uma, for starting the conversation.

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