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As the world of publishing gets accustomed to people putting down their books and turning on their computers, so, too, must the world of education evaluate what's happening to the reading habits of kids. The Pew Internet & American Life Project says that 93 percent of teens use the Internet, reading and composing language at frenetic rates. All that time online means less time curled up on the couch with a book. Does this spell the end of the book, and if so, should parents protest by throwing themselves in front of the keyboard and extending a worn out copy of The Grapes of Wrath to their blog-addicted teen?
There are some purists who say “Yes,” kids should be brought up reading books—hardcover, paperback, pop-up, nonfiction, graphic novel, whatever—as long as it sucks children into the printed word. According to Lynn Truss, in her book Eats, Shoot & Leaves, there is just something important about the tactile function of the book which simply can't be replicated on the screen. “The book remains static and fixed; the reader journeys through it. Picking up the book in the first place entails an active pursuit of understanding. Holding the book we are aware of posterity and continuity. Knowing that the printed word is always edited, typeset and proof-read before it reaches us, we appreciate its literary authority,” she says. “All these conditions for reading are overturned by the new technologies... The internet is a public 'space' which you visit, and even inhabit; its product is inherently impersonal and disembodied. Scrolling documents is the opposite of reading: your eyes remain static, while the material flows past.”
This act of journeying through a book allows kids to spend more time getting to know a character, which is one of the most important features of reading, says Jeffrey Wilhelm, a professor of English Education at Boise State University. “Most electronic media does not afford them this because they're skimming and moving from text to text,” he says. But, leading companies like Amazon.com and Sony are out to reinvent the book with electronic reading devices that store hundreds of books at a time. Amazon.com released their version of this reading device, the Kindle, last year. While it may seem people are divided into two camps (those toting Kindles, and the book purists), there’s actually a lot more to it.
Wilhelm, having used both the Kindle and the Sony eBook, says the history of literacy has shown that “being literate means having the capacity to use the most powerful tools to make meanings,” and that such devices, combined with online materials, are the future. “It doesn’t mean stories are going away, but it will be in a different form,” he says. It’s a form which allows the reader to simply double click on the word “wrath” and immediately be given the tools to define its meaning. It means being able to change the size and font of a text with the press of a button. Some electronic devices even have a voice function that shows how to pronounce multi-syllabic words.