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.
“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 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 from link to link, mixing and matching information sources. We take in stories a differently.
Meanwhile, I'm at odds with myself: I love long narratives told in a specific 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 a chronological sequence 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—and he kept saying 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 its heft 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.
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.
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.”