Falling In and Out of Love, with E-books

In Children's, Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

Editorial by Edward Nawotka

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Prior to having a child, I loved e-books. After she was born, I appreciated them even more because when I would cradle my newborn daughter in one arm, I loved that I could hold my Kindle in the other arm and flip a page with my thumb, one handed. It was convenient, it was handy. Now that my daughter is 20 months old and reading her own books, I’m equivocating.

My daughter loves to read. “Book, ook, ook,” she’ll say, trying to form the right word that will get my attention to plop onto a beanbag chair, pull her into my lap, and read to her from her growing library of small, square board books. There are some A-Z books, some “colors” and “shapes” books, some Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry. But most often, what she wants is something by Sandra Boynton — Barnyard Dance, Horns to Toes – books that are age-appropriate. These are books full of sing-songy prose and hippos, elephants, and dogs doing things like bathing, brushing their teeth, and pulling on pajamas — all the things she’s now learning to do herself. My daughter loves these books so much that she literally tries to climb inside them. Now that’s commitment.

I’m not trying to say that either my experience or my daughter is in anyway unique. Many, if not most, parents read to their children. Many of us have the same books — which is itself a testament to the ability of some authors to stimulate that part of a still-forming child’s mind that is universal (animals, bright colors, rhyme). Perhaps the only thing I do differently from other parents is, whenever I open a book and start to read, I insist on starting at the title page. I read the title of the book, the author’s name, and finally the name of the publisher, pointing with my finger so my daughter can follow along. At first, she was impatient with the delay, wanting to just jump right into the story. Now, if you skip it, she makes you go back.

I suppose my insistence on reading the title and author is a force of habit from more than a decade of writing and thinking about publishing for 40+ hours a week. I would also like to think that I am instilling in my daughter an appreciation for the people who made that book — the one she’s trying to climb into — possible.

Lately, as the economy has faltered, there’s been plenty of introspection, both in the trade publications and online. The predominant debate is between traditional print publishing and new, digital models; between books and e-books, bricks-and-mortar and online bookstores. The tide seems to finally be turning in favor of digitization, particularly as the industry struggles to find new ways to make money.

But what I fear, as things go digital, is that a lot of the visceral love of reading will be lost. Not the romance of paper — although, there is that — but that physical connection one gets with books from an early age. That climbing into the book my daughter is doing, the way she can’t turn the page fast enough when she’s excited, the way she flips it aside when she’s done.

Of course, there will always be children’s board books. But the question is, as more and more parents spend more and more time with e-book readers and less with physical books, what kind of example does that serve? Don’t we spend enough time in front of screens as it is?

I know my daughter responds to books because, in part, as an infant she had to crawl through what must have looked like looming towers of review copies, threatening at a moment’s notice to topple over on her. She was both curious about and wary of these piles. Would the same have happened if all my galleys came via e-mail to my Kindle?

I remain both a fan and an advocate of e-books. I own a Kindle and a Sony e-reader. But when my daughter was born, it didn’t occur to me to go out and buy her one and fill it with my favorite children’s books. I went out and bought real ones, ones I knew she could touch, feel, smell and keep until she was old enough to read and understand them. Frankly, the battery on my Kindle 1 had to be replaced after one year — who knows if it will last another five?

Prior to my daughter’s birth I bought as many volumes from and about the Mediterranean island of Malta that I could find. It’s the island her great grandparents emigrated from back in 1908. I found them in antiquarian bookstores as well as online. Some of these books are more than 100 years old (and smell like it too). They may be available — someday, or perhaps even now — as digital copies. But it’s simply not the same as having something tangible to pass down to her.

I worry that the advent of ebooks — even our looming dependency on them — is less likely to produce future generations of readers. Or at least the type of reader my daughter is turning out to be. My daughter’s love of brightly dressed animals who talk in a rhyming, omniscient voice is physical and visceral. It’s comforting and it’s very, very real — to her at least. The experience of reading is something she can feel, not just an abstract something-or-other that goes on in her head.

Of course, that goes away with age. But the memory of that emotion, that first love of reading, lingers for a lifetime.

Whenever I let my daughter use my Kindle, she does not try to climb into it. She just sits there, slapping it with a tiny hand, occasionally pushing a button, watching the text flicker to the next “page” mesmerized by the movement on the screen and not by the words. That too is physical, visceral, and very real – though I doubt she’s getting much out of the experience. Yet.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

Edward Nawotka is the Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. A former foreign correspondent, he has covered the book business exclusively since 2000, serving as daily news editor for Publishers Weekly and columnist for Bloomberg News.