10 February 2012

Book Trends: Attracting the Distracted

I mentioned recently that I was reading James Patterson's Maximum Ride, which I enjoyed. The day I finished it I immediately picked up another book, one I was very excited to read: A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L'Engle. This is the second book in L'Engle's Time Quintet, coming after A Wrinkle in Time. (Now that I've finished that as well, I'm reading Walking on Water, by L'Engle, which is a must-read).

These two books were published three decades apart, the latter first, and I can't help but note the difference in layout for reasons I'll try and explain. The experience of Maximum Ride was a somewhat new one, mostly because it is the definition of a page turner. Each chapter is hardly two pages, sometimes barely one, and I flew through it. I didn't notice the effect this had on me until I opened A Wind in the Door; I found my eyes darting over the full pages of L'Engle's work, and my fingers itched to move. I felt like I had been driving 90mph and then had to slow down to 30 - you know that feeling? It's as though you're crawling.

The thing is these books probably had about the same word count, and I'm guessing they were both written for the 12 and up crowd (though L'Engle might have said something like, "Emphasis on the up"). However, A Wind in the Door is 211 pages, Maximum Ride is 413. The result: I read much slower, especially because the older book was thick not only in appearance, but also in content.

I find the comparison of old and new Young Adult books fasinating, and what I've seen in the two books above is that in order to get children to read, publishers have had to engineer their books to be quick reads. Even the large volumes like Harry Potter use the short chapter ruse to keep you going.

It works.

The truth, and I think it's a shame, is that many children wouldn't read these same stories without the device. There are plenty of my students who have needed from August to yesterday to practice sitting still for 15 minutes. They have to have something to keep their attention, and turning the pages often does it.

I blame TV and any other visual entertainment. And now that cell phones do everything, including show videos and other images, children have access to exciting visual stimulant at all hours of the day. And have you noticed the size of TVs these days?

"Creative involvement: that's the basic difference between reading a book and watching TV. In watching TV we are passive; sponges; we do nothing. In reading we must become creators. Once the child has learned to read alone and can pick up a book without illustrations, he must become a creator, imagining the setting of the story, visualizing the characters, seeing facial expressions, hearing the inflection of voices."  --Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water

Did you catch that? "...a creator...visualizing the characters." I'm just about convinced some of my students are slowly losing the ability to create mental images; call me an alarmist, but I think the next few generations of parents are going to have to fight for their children's imaginations.

And so these same students, the ones picking up books and leafing through the short chapters of newer books and comparing them to Dickens or even L'Engle, have to have something to keep them going, keep them reading. So they turn pages, quickly.

Driving 90mph is a thrill; driving 30 - or even better, walking - is what I want my children and my students to enjoy. You just notice so much more that way.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Be a shame if the next generation forgot what it was like to imagine a world of their own creation.

Anonymous said...

Great post, albeit disturbing! I felt the same alarm when music videos came out. I want my own mental picture with the song.

Creepy Query Girl said...

Yes, I think reading a book is so much more mentally and intellectually stimulating than watching a tv show. Definitely. Looking forward to your post for the origins blogfest!

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