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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Screens, and books, in libraries

In almost every middle-school library I visit, screens are where the action is. Kids are at them, cruising websites or working on projects, often in clusters with a teacher moving from one terminal to another, corralling focus. “You’re supposed to be doing this — not that. You know this.” This interaction I think captures the situation schools are in, as adults try to keep young people on task while the world — and by “the world” I mean our screens, with all their messages, drama and distractions — appeal every moment to pull the focus away.

Meanwhile, the books. They’re nicely displayed, librarians having taken time to lean up on little stands the titles they know the kids like, or think they would. And books do get borrowed and read — middle schoolers will often describe passionately the fantasy series they’re reading, and sometimes will even mention a realistic novel. But picking up a book is to enter a deeper, quieter encounter. You can, in contrast, stand in a school library and see the hopping energy that screens attract, the sugary fascination they have for us all.

I got into thinking about this after I picked up a paperback called Hamlet’s BlackBerry in an airport bookstore. Written by media critic William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry looks in inspired, historical depth (Hamlet’s “BlackBerry” was an erasable, book-sized tablet that was wildly popular, among busy Elizabethans, for note-taking and organizing) at the struggle we’re almost all enmeshed with, to evolve with our technology. How can we live well and happily amid the magnetizing pull of our screens? How can we build, as Powers’s subtitle puts it, “a good life in the digital age”?

Networked technology is still so new — I think we haven’t yet worked through its addictive-infatuation phase. Remember when you got America Online, if that was your first network? You were likely on it for hours, until maybe there was an emptiness — a sort of letdown. We can spend hours connected online, yet feel lonelier when we get off than when we got on.  

That's what Powers looks at. “For all the good work our screens do for us,” he writes, “there are some experiences they can’t deliver, and those happen to be the most important ones.” The experiences of depth that we need, with their deeper connections both inside us and with others, he argues, tend not to come through screens at all. So even though all the marketing and peer pressure and allure of being part with what’s happening are pulling us toward constant, obsessive connectedness, sooner or later we’ll need to — we’ll almost have to — step back and seek some balance.

“Everyone needs to create a gap between themselves and the screen — the gap that opens up when you turn it off,” Powers says. “When you do that, something miraculous happens.”

And so, the books. A lot of people assume that networked screens in school and public libraries are replacements — that book collections will shrink, unbrowsed and unborrowed, until we realize we don’t need them any more. I don’t think so. As we move past the infatuation phase with our screens and find ourselves groping toward better balance, I believe books will grow more valued, not less. I see this in my own life: I’ve been figuring out, slowly but surely, that clicking up news and opinion for hours on the Internet does not leave me feeling relaxed, nor connected, by the end of the evening the way spending even a little time with a book does.

I don’t think I’m the only one who is slowly, yet steadily, figuring this out.
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