Reading Atavism

Earlier this evening, I was engaging in a nightly ritual/indulgence—watching E! News Daily (you say tomato, I say tomahto). One of the stories tonight covered the baby boom in Hollywood and the fact that toy companies are beginning to offer free products to stars who might give them good press. It’s only a matter of time, it seems, before the room of swag at the Sundance Film Festival places a Barbie table next to the Bulgari display. The E! story focused particularly on the LeapFrog company, which specializes in toys and game systems designed around learning objectives for infants, toddlers, elementary school kids, etc. Their representative spoke a good deal about the game system that “brings books alive.” My immediate reaction to this was a bit histrionic: “What’s going to happen when these kids grow up? How can ‘regular books’ compete when these play songs and have video and are interactive? Why would kids want to read print novels?”

These are the moments that I can’t help dwelling on. If someone had read me this LeapFrog tagline where they purport to “combine research-based curriculum with multisensory technology to advance student achievement” I would have immediately jumped on board. Yes! Isn’t this what we’re after in education, activating multiple senses to increase student interaction with content? It’s clear from my knee-jerk reaction above, however, that there remains in me some significant fears about the future of the book.  I’m certainly not alone in this, and the good people over at if:book (see sidebar) are doing yeoman’s work thinking about how narrative and books as we know them will look in the future.  I’m at least as interested in the psychology that subtends these contradictory impulses.  Trying to strip away my own professional investment in the continuation of paper novels—which, to be honest, is a significant part of my first reaction—I find myself returning to some of my most positive moments as a reader: discovering an idea that I wanted to explore in a text for the first time; understanding and articulating stylistic components that did or did not appeal to me; re-reading novels to re-live not just the plot, but the mood they could create.  The first two of these are certainly activities that can be replicated by other types of media, particularly games.  Stephen Johnson makes a compelling argument in his Everything Bad is Good for You that exploration of a digital world is a large part of the appeal of a game.

It’s the last, however, that English types might spend a bit more time thinking about as we engage and enthuse about new media and simultaneously mourn the possible death of the book.  Where is the space in interactive media for contemplation, for re-living?   We might explore the pleasures that accrue from repetition, as these seem distinctly underexplored in new media.  What makes the process invigorating, and when is it just boring?  What kind of text rewards a second visit, and which frustrate it?

As we bang the drum for interactivity, for multisensory experience, for collaboration and forecasting and all of the new means of learning and thinking that new media offer us, where does contemplation fit?

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