Why Reading Novels on My Kindle Scares Me

My son has reached an age when he loves to get my goat. Take the word “balls” and what a nine-year-old boy can get up to with a Christmas tree:

“Look at these balls!” He holds up two red ornaments.

"Martha's Kindle" © Martha Nichols

“Yep. Those are balls,” I say.

“Let’s hang the balls on the tree!” A storm of giggling.

This is normal and hilarious. But when I get annoyed at his subversiveness, I’ve learned to pay attention. And when I catch myself thinking what the heck is wrong with him?, I know he’s pushed a personal button I need to think about.

His latest button push, in fact, involves everything my professional life is based on. It’s about books and reading and how we take in information. It’s about the literal buttons I push on my Kindle.

While this is not the first time my son’s reading habits have set me brooding, I’ve been irritated with him for reasons it’s taken me awhile to untangle.

“He doesn’t follow narratives the way I do”

He doesn’t follow narratives the way I do: He leaps to the end of a story first. He’ll skip the openings of almost any movie on DVD, hopping right to the exciting parts. In this, he’s far more in tune with the continuing transformation in media than I am—and it scares me, I’ve realized.

The new media world is changing to accommodate empowered readers. I know all this stuff, but I can’t help bemoaning that we read differently on a screen. We jump links, mixing and matching information sources. We take in stories differently.

Meanwhile, I’m at odds with myself: I love long narratives told in sequence, in which the writer chooses when to reveal information to readers. This is the purpose of a plot, especially in novels: It’s a chain of explanation. It doesn’t have to be chronological or even linear, but there is a beginning, middle, and end determined by the author.

The generational difference in reading styles isn’t a simple matter of liking books. Since third grade, my son has been obsessed with Rick Riordan’s series about Percy Jackson and the Greek gods, starting with The Lightning Thief. He’s read them all several times, by himself and with me aloud. He’s also torn through Riordan’s first two books in the Kane Chronicles series, which are based on Egyptian mythology.

But when it comes to getting him to try a new book, he balks. I’ve nudged. I’ve pored through library listings. I’ve asked other parents and librarians for ideas. Nothing takes. All he wants to read are books by Rick Riordan.

So, when we visited the public library yesterday, a hot little flame burned inside me with every enticing title I brought him—Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven, Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Cornelia Funke’s Igraine the Brave—as he said no, I don’t think so, boring.

What the heck is wrong with him?

I held it in check, trying to let him make his own choices. I do understand loving a book so much that you’ll read it over and over. I also understand that a book like The Borrowers that once delighted me may now seem dated.

Yet my son’s attitude challenges my core notions about why reading is pleasurable. When I was his age, I’d plunge from one series to another, tearing through them all in search of gems, but always reading, reading, reading—and finishing—every narrative, because I loved how stories unfolded. Any story.

For my boy, it seems to be about immersion in a particular fictional world or character’s point of view. He enters this world and moves around at will. He wants to create his own version of the narrative—to tell it his way.

And maybe it’s not just him.

Last weekend, I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot on my Kindle, one of the first times I’ve let myself inhale a literary novel on a screen. I loved it; I even nursed happy hopes that I could download more books of before my next airline flight.

But much as I enjoyed The Marriage Plot, the experience of reading it on the Kindle didn’t feel like reading a novel. I kept clicking buttons, immersing myself in the stories of particular characters. I kept reminding myself of the larger plot. Then I found I didn’t care.

While some of this is conveyed by Eugenides’s narrative—he is riffing on semiotics and the whole notion of traditional plot, after all—I’m pretty sure my experience of The Marriage Plot would have been different if I’d read the print book. For one thing, when I first opened the e-version on my Kindle, it went straight to Chapter One. I had to click back to find the epigraphs, the Table of Contents, the title page.

"The Marriage Plot on Screen
© Martha Nichols

With a Kindle or a Nook, we don’t hold a physical object in our hands, with pages that are meant to be turned in one direction. We get lost or immersed in the narrative, in personal voices, in brief anecdotes. That’s what hooks us these days.

This isn’t a shocking revelation, and I doubt it’s truly a bad thing. Kids are learning to read in a new way—so what? They’re reading. My son is reading.

But I’m reading in a new way, too. Jettisoning narrative sequence disturbs me—I can’t help it—it feels akin to losing the thread of meaning in my own life. It’s not my son’s determined new way of hyperlinking around his brain that’s scary; it’s the fact that I’m doing it myself.

 


Afternote

I have no right to complain, of course. I shouldn’t draw big conclusions based on one child who’s the highly verbal son of a writer and an academic. He’s grown up surrounded by books. He’s an adoptee, which means he’s known for a long time that his isn’t the typical children’s story. And he’s stubborn, my boy. That’s who he is.

He loves what he loves—and it’s a marvelous thing. When Rick Riordan’s latest book, The Son of Neptune, came out this fall, my son insisted we go to the nearest book signing. We waited in line for hours. He got thirty seconds, max, to pass his copy under the master’s hand for an illegible scrawl. But my son had practiced what he wanted to say.

“You’re my favorite author in the world!” he burst out.

Rick Riordan smiled. “I’m very honored.”

 

4 thoughts on “Why Reading Novels on My Kindle Scares Me

  1. I’m especially intrigued by all this because I just got my first e-reader — in fact, my first hand-held digital device. (I don’t have a smart phone or a stupid one either, just a landline.) It’s a Nook Color. I love it. I’ve bought more books in the last two weeks than I did in the previous two years. I’m already reading more for pleasure, which is to say books that I’m not being paid to edit and books that aren’t how-tos about dog training. Whether this will continue, who knows? From childhood up to about age 45, I was an avid, even compulsive reader. Since then — I’m now 60 — I haven’t read all that much, in part because most of the people I hang out with don’t read much, or talk about books; in part because I spend a fair amount of time outdoors; and in part (probably the largest part) because most of my written-word intake has been via computer. For me the big appeal of cyberspace is that it’s interactive and conversational in a way that books aren’t.

    About the total immersion aspect of your son’s reading — having wallowed in Katharine Kerr’s Deverry novels and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, among others, I can relate, but what it really makes me think of is fanfic, fan fiction: writers, from amateur to accomplished professional, who play in a universe that someone else created. That isn’t new, and plenty of people of my generation, especially women, have been doing it for literally decades. It’ll be interesting to see how all this plays out, both for those of us in the word trades and for general readers.

  2. Hi Susanna — When I first got my Kindle couple of years ago, I read a lot on it, definitely in a kid-in-a-candy-store way, but it was all mystery or other genre novels. Then, for whatever reason, I stopped using it. Now I’m back at it, partly because I have a lot of traveling in my future, but also–maybe–because I’ve moved away from printed books in some way that I still don’t quite fathom.

    I agree about the conversational nature of online writing, which I’m starting to prefer–although I can’t imagine I’ll ever abandon the plotted novel. I do think we’re reading and interacting in a different way, and not necessarily a lesser way.

    As for my son and fanfic–yes! His obsession is very much along those lines. If you ever have a yen to write about how fan readers differ from other readers, please let me know. I’ve been meaning to get in touch with you anyway,…

  3. Hi Martha. I enjoyed reading this post, thank you for explaining your son’s interesting way of approaching books. I wonder if and how his reading habits have since changed. Personally I love Riordan’s mythology-based series, along with a million other things. I often find that Riordan’s blog is a great place to find interesting new things to read. He often posts about new books he and his son discovered and read together, and his impressions of them. When an author you love recommends books so highly, it gives you some incentive to read them … 🙂

  4. Yawar, thanks so much for recommending Riordan’s blog. When I told my son about it, he looked very interested, and I think we’ll be looking at it together. My son still tends to immerse himself thoroughly in whatever he’s reading or watching or playing. These days, it’s a combo of Magic: The Gathering and The Big Bang Theory. He’s in search of another book series, and we both joke about the fact that If I recommend anything to him, he won’t read it(!) So, in some ways, he remains who he is as a reader. But he’s also a very prolific one. At this point, he’s jumped from Riordan’s three mythology-based series to Fablehaven to Harry Potter to the Lord of the Rings to the Barthamaeus series to…well, I’m not sure what will be next. But I’m learning to enjoy the ride.

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