There is a strange double standard in today’s world of entertainment, particularly when it comes to books and reading. Why is this, and what should we do about it?

Digital vs. book by Zahra WarsameWith new consoles and tablets appearing every other week, children and teenagers are bombarded with technology, making reading appearing to become a thing of the past. This became particularly obvious to me at a Christmas family gathering – my little cousin was playing on a new Kindle Fire, and the older generations started tutting. Not remarkable in itself, but this time it was about how unsociable everyone is, playing on their “devices”. (This willingness to ignore people IRL is so close to becoming a trope, it was recently used in Apple’s Christmas ad.)

Later on, however, when the battery of the Kindle ran out, he picked up a new book and started reading it. This, they looked fondly upon, pointing discretely and awwwing as he smiled at a funny passage and turned the pages.

Before these new-fangled devices became available, however, a child reading was deemed unsociable and encouraged to play outside. This was certainly the case when I was younger and hadn’t realised the difference between books and friends. Suddenly, however, this has changed.

With all the talk of violent video games, cyber-bullying and hacking, technology is becoming demonized, and suddenly a child sat in a corner with a book is becoming a rare treasure that should be encouraged and left to it, while the rest of us should be thankful they’re not busy stealing virtual cars or, God forbid, crushing candy.

Yes, children – or anyone – reading is a good thing and should be encouraged. However, there is a huge double standard that needs to be addressed. Not only are games and social media frowned upon, but any device is by association. So a kid might be playing a game on a Kindle Fire. Maybe. But how about embracing the fact that this technology can be used for different things? Rather than steering him away from the digital demons and into the arms of freshly-printed books, why not accept that he prefers his device, and buy him the digital copy of the books? I would refuse to buy a book if it was only available in hardback and I wanted paperback –  and with the differences between a physical and digital copy being far more pronounced, the format does make a difference. If they prefer a portable, interactive version, so be it.

Even outside of childhood and family drama, this double standard persists. There is an unspoken assumption that just because you’re reading on  a Kindle or online, you’re not reading “as much” or “as well”. The mantra is repeated – you don’t get the full reading experience, you get distracted, it will hurt your eyes… and an e-reader, well, it’s just not as nice as a normal book, is it? Authors, publishers and conservative readers shout about piracy, and danger, and newness, and change, and blergh.

I love the smell of fresh pages, walking into a library packed with leather-bound books, and the idea of parchment and quills. However, I also recognize that it is mighty convenient not have to wait for someone to bring back a copy of a book (although restrictive licenses are another problem which I won’t discuss here); or to think of reading the latest Pratchett novel and have downloaded it seconds later; or to take three months worth of books on holiday with me in my pocket. Times are changing. We might be doing other things – we might use our devices for gaming, chatting and blogging – but we’re still reading.

We need to face it: reading, publishing, entertainment are all changing. By emphasizing the differences between the old and the new, we will end up dividing it, and tomorrow’s youth won’t enjoy any of the books you want them to, because we won’t have kept up with the technology they want to read it on.

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