Two months ago, Eva announced that she did not like old books because they were long and hard. Last month she read Little Women in a week. How did it happen? Well, the beginning of the story is technology, or perhaps that's the end of the story, but it's how we'll begin.
My generous in-laws have four granddaughters, and they have taken each one to Paris when she was ten. This year, it was Eva's turn. As we discussed which t-shirts and accessories she would pack (fashion is big these days, and we were, after all, talking PARIS), my thoughts turned to books, and then to the Kindle.
Earlier this year, my sister bought a Kindle for her daughter to take on a long trip. My niece loaded her Kindle with a few purchased books, including Oh. My. Gods, Goddess Boot Camp and The Lost Hero, and a host of free classics, along the lines of The Secret Garden, Tom Sawyer, and the aforementioned Little Women. With infinite reading matter in one slim device, she read her way through plane and train trips, bedtimes in strange hotels, and afternoon breaks from sightseeing.
Eva and I agreed that the Kindle would be perfect for Paris, and my sister readily agreed to lend it. When it arrived, well-padded in a Priority Mail envelope, Eva instantly mastered its workings, skimmed the book offerings, and discovered the games. She walked onto the plane with her doll, the Kindle, and a notebook, a far cry from past trips, when her little backpack has been loaded down with books, toys, and games -- and often carried by forbearing parents.
The Kindle reading didn't start till Paris -- airplane movies and videos are way too enticing -- and it began with Goddess Boot Camp, which is reportedly "awesome!" When I asked Eva why she read Little Women next, she said that none of the other books looked good, and she'd already read part of Little Women, so she decided to try it again. Why did she continue? She didn't articulate it as such, but technology clearly made the reading experience easier. Little Women is a long book, and our copy is both thick with pages and thinly spaced. Eva described the Kindle version: "It was normally spaced, and you couldn't look at the book and see how long it is, you can't visibly see how much you've read." Not only that, but "I took breaks to play Minesweeper."
If these factors sound technological and circumstantial, they nevertheless enabled the book to work its magic. The first question Eva asked me when she got home was whether Jo marries Professor Bhaer (she wasn't quite done, though she finished first thing the next morning), and she talked almost as much about Laurie and Amy as about Giverny, the Eiffel Tower, and French street fashion. She was anxious to start Little Men, and on a form a few days later, she answered the question "What is your favorite book?" with "The Mysterious Benedict Society and Little Women."
However, when a friend complained that her own daughter had no interest in Little Women, I remembered that there was more to the story. Before Eva got bogged down in the hard copy, full-length Little Women, she'd seen the Winona Ryder movie and read and loved Beth's Story and Meg's Story from the Portraits of Little Women series, which is aimed at younger readers and tells a short story about each sister at the age of ten. We live near Concord, and she remembered, as a toddler, playing outside Orchard House with her grandfather, while Mara and I went inside. In short, she'd been gradually acculturated into the book, and technology finally gave her a successful physical access point.
This fleshed-out narrative made me think of Roger Ebert's recent condemnation of an edition of The Great Gatsby rewritten for English language learners and younger readers. Ebert points, rightly, to the central importance of the novel's language, which the 1,600 word vocabulary of the Macmillan Intermediate Readers series can never approach, let alone achieve. Yet when he claims that "You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look," I have to wonder. Maybe not. Maybe it can just as easily go the other way.
"Dumbing down" is the phrase used by Ebert -- and many of his hundreds of commenters, most of whom vehemently agree with him -- but couldn't we also say "building up"? While walking is an inevitability for most of us, reading is not. Even those of us who teach ourselves to read learn because there are words and books around us, and begin with what is easy. I know the first word I read was "milk," because I stared at it every morning on the carton, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.
When Ebert says that "Any high school student who cannot read The Great Gatsby in the original cannot read," he is absolutely right, and that is one of our country's great tragedies. It is also true that "After a certain point, you teach yourself to read. You arrive at an unfamiliar word, and usually don't look it up. You sort of flow with it in the context, and in time it teaches itself to you." But lots of students never reach that "certain point," because they never really learn to read, or there are not enough books around, or the books they are expected to read are too hard for them, so hard that that can't get into that "flow," so the impetus to figure out words is thwarted.
Children become readers because they acquire basic skills, but also because they are seduced into reading. Sometimes they are seduced by engaging, complex books (think of all the children whose first literary love was Harry Potter); sometimes they are seduced by what is accessible at their reading level (graphic novels, Beth's Story); sometimes they are seduced by the movie or video game; sometimes they are seduced by a book on a computer; sometimes they are seduced not by the text at all, but by peer pressure (which is not always a bad thing).
The sad fact of the matter is that the young person who reads an abridged version of The Great Gatsby and doesn't want to read any further probably hasn't been stopped in her tracks by the paucity of that particular book, but rather has never found the track to begin with. And it's also a fact that the right teacher can use that book to put her on track. To put it another way, I don't think anyone on their way to becoming a reader was ever stopped by a bad book -- and I'm sure lots of people who had no intention of becoming readers got started because of some book somebody thought was a travesty.
As I've said before, I'm an agnostic omniversalist when it comes to reading. I want all kids surrounded by all kinds of books, on all kinds of subjects, at all reading levels, not to mention book-based movies, graphic novels, games, dolls, and playlists. I want them to encounter conversations, websites, blogs, and Amazon comments about books, and have access to both the stupidest product-placement board books and Dostoyevsky on a Kindle. Such a book-filled universe is a tall order, I know, but we get there not by condemning any kind of books, but by embracing all kinds of books.