We live in a virtual world, maybe not entirely, but more so than any generation before.
In fact, as I celebrate the third day of my summer vacation, I find myself staring longingly at my computer, which I am trying (and failing) to ignore. The lure of all that information is almost too strong; I want to know; I want to interact; I want to connect.
What happened to me? I used to spend my summers with a paperback in my hand at the beach, but I seem to have been replaced by a crazy virtual avatar, whose only desire is to consume information and make connections digitally. I even prefer my Nook and iPad devices to actual paperbacks.
It seems that I no longer need to have the tactile experience of turning paper pages; instead, I am perfectly content swiping a screen to advance to the next section. I never thought in a million years, I’d prefer that…never. So, as I sat by the pool yesterday reading on a digital device, I asked myself whether this was the year to move to digital books in the classroom?
The majority of my students have laptops, iPads, iPhones, Kindles, or Nooks, and this past year was the first in which multiple students in each class were using their iPads to read assigned novels. At first, I resisted; I explained that they needed to be able to write in their books, annotate passages, etc. Then, while reading Feed by MT Anderson (for those who have experienced this haunting novel, you will find this ironic), I asked a class to find passages that relate to the downfall of education. I expected this activity to take ten or fifteen minutes, as it had in the past; however, as my paperback students were hurriedly flipping pages and re-reading passages, a student exclaimed, “I’ve found nine references to education.” I was shocked. How was it possible for her to find that many reference in less than two minutes? There was no way it was possible.
Then, it hit me…she was using an iPad. She’d simply typed the word “education” into the search box on her digital Kindle book, and—voila—instant access to numerous passages on that particular subject.
This was an enlightening experience for me; it was the first time I realized that reading a digital book might have more advantages. You can highlight in different colors without carrying around those pesky markers, bookmark specific pages and never lose them, type (legible) notes on any page, and most importantly, search a book for specific words or phrases. This is a literature teacher’s dream.
But digital reading also has a few drawbacks: requirement of internet service to download books, possibility of a device breaking or running out of battery power, and in the case of one frustrated student, the difficulty for some of the less tech-savvy to learn the ins and outs of the device.
Maybe I should wait on the switch. It wasn’t that many years ago that I read Fahrenheit 451 and nearly wept over the loss of thousands of important books burned in the fires. With my students, I discussed the likelihood of this ever happening, and we agreed that there was little to no chance of books ever being rendered useless, and yet here I sit a short eight years later questioning whether to make the move to digital media. Is this just metaphorical book burning?
I look at my bookshelf and I think of how beautiful and fragile my 1840 copy of Ivanhoe is or how worn my copies of the first few Harry Potter novels are or even how filled with notes my copy of Frankenstein is and I ask myself how long it’s been since I last cracked them open. The answer lies in the dust… a long time.
Maybe what Bradbury was warning us about is happening, but instead of a bonfire filled with paper, we’re just giving up our books, trading them for something that seems the same, but isn’t, not quite. Our books will be gone–not with a bang, but a whimper.