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Do Books Still Matter?-Sherri Rosen Publicity, NYC

Do Books Still Matter?


The answer is “yes.” But not in ways you may expect.


By Marc Aronson — School Library Journal


Welcome to the 21st century, where many students turn to Google as their main source of information. In fact, some kids wouldn’t look anywhere else but the Internet. So what does that mean for nonfiction books?


Are they on the verge of extinction? Is print still relevant, and, if so, what should a nonfiction book be in this new environment? What should we—everyone from authors and editors to reviewers and librarians—do differently? As a writer and editor of nonfiction for young adults, I’m obsessed with these questions. I know that many media specialists and librarians are too.


Five years ago, everybody warned that fresh, interactive digital content would eventually replace old-fashioned books. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. And I’m not alone. Last December, Forbes magazine came out with a special issue on book publishing confirming that people were reading more, not less. “The Internet is fueling literacy. Giving books away online increases off-line readership. New forms of expression—wikis, networked books—are blossoming in a digital hothouse.”


The radio and the TV


Why are so many of us still worried about the fate of nonfiction books? Because we imagine that new technologies will always replace the old. The truth is, in today’s world the two can coexist. As Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (NYU Press, 2006), “We are entering an era where media will be everywhere, and we will use all kinds of media in relation to one another.” In other words, Jenkins sees books as radio programs that are flourishing in the age of television.


Jenkins’s argument is encouraging, but it doesn’t explain what each form of media has to offer. Take nonfiction books and Web sites. If you did a search on the Civil Rights Movement, for example, you’d come up with a wide array of interviews, personal accounts, images, video clips, time lines, background narratives, and lesson plans—all with a few clicks of the mouse. How can a poor book possibly compete? Well, a book may not have the same bells and whistles, but it does have a distinct author, editor, and designer. And it’s a perfect example of how an author gathered and synthesized a vast amount of valuable information and put it together in a new package.


It’s about story


Of course, not all books are worth reading. But a book that conveys an author’s judgments and passions—one that makes clear his or her particular vision, that goes beyond simple précis to provide an in-depth analysis and exploration of a subject—offers something very different than a Web site. David Williamson Shaffer, a professor of learning science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of How Computer Games Help Children Learn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), knows the digital world as well as anyone. But, as he says, “Writing a book allowed me to present a whole argument,” whereas the Web is only conducive to brief narratives.


Books offer a gift that’s hard to define, and the experience of reading a good one can last a lifetime. Books, not the Web, are a perfect place for an author’s well-honed narrative skills. Books are also carefully crafted to appeal to younger readers, and special attention is given to how art and text fall on each page. There’s no way to compare the fine art of bookmaking to designing even the most sophisticated Web site. And as any child will tell you, there’s no competition between a book that uses storytelling to capture a reader’s heart and a two-dimensional Web site that’s intended to hold a viewer’s attention for 15 seconds. But, of course, there are Web sites that aim to grab a young visitor and never let go. We call them games.


Learning from gaming


Books and gaming? Now that’s a fine example of the peaceful coexistence between old and new. If you check out, you’ll see an avatar of MIT’s Jenkins whooping it up on the dance floor, while discussing the future of gaming, learning, and culture. Jenkins is attending a party at Teen Second Life for Global Kids, a New York-based group that uses current affairs to help young people develop leadership skills. (To learn more about Teen Second Life, visit The “people” on the floor are avatars chosen by teenagers, and they quickly learn that the game offers no clear, obvious, or simple choices.


Kurt Squire, a colleague of Shaffer’s at Wisconsin, says that when he worked at MIT, they developed a game with historian Pauline Maier that lets players experience life during the American Revolution through the eyes of those living in different socioeconomic circumstances. The key word is “experience” or learning by doing.


There are many interactive games that challenge users to build a business and make a profit. While playing Zoo Tycoon, for instance, you can let a tiger run free or bankrupt the zoo. Whatever happens, all you have to do is start over, using the knowledge you’ve gained from the previous session. There aren’t any grades or class rankings. Frankie Clem of the educational consulting firm Learning Research Institute sees gaming as a culture of trial and error, where the consequences for failure are low.


But not all learning games work this way. In fact, Scot Osterweil of MIT’s Education Arcade—a research project that hopes to transform the way video and computer games are used in the classroom—reports that the most popular games these days are just the opposite. Ever since the educational software company Knowledge Adventure created JumpStart digital games that feature rote learning, parents have rushed to buy them, eager to give their kids tireless electronic drillmasters. And, I notice that my six-year-old son, Sasha, is just as happy playing mathematical counting games that reward him for getting his sums right as he is fencing tigers in Zoo Tycoon. So how does this relate to books?


Addictive or educational?


I went to my local library in Maplewood, NJ, and thrashed all this out with Jane Folger, an outspoken youth librarian who works with kids and gaming every day. She often sees young people gravitate to what she refers to as “Candyland”—the easiest, least challenging, most immediately gratifying games possible—where all they get are jolts of sugar, no thought required. In fact, she thinks games are more addictive than educational.


Folger finds that students with homework assignments instinctively treat the information they find on search engines as credible and complete. She thinks adults need to train kids in effective research skills and how to use video games as educational tools. By itself, the digital gaming world has no special value for learning or teaching.


I asked gaming advocates to respond to Folger’s comments. Shaffer concurs that kids get addicted to many easy pleasures, such as series fiction, so the need for adult involvement isn’t limited to gaming. Squire thinks most middle- and upper-middle-class parents already give their children some guidance and mentoring when it comes to gaming, especially when kids play educational games. So the question is not how kids in general relate to gaming, but what blend of schooling, gaming, and adult involvement is available to young people of different backgrounds.


Fair enough. But I asked Sasha to compare the experience of playing a game online (which he does avidly) and reading a book (which he does). “In a game you have to use your brain,” he says. “In a book, the brain is already in it.” He’s not reading the most mentally challenging books, but he’s definitely on to something.


Folger’s skepticism, Squire’s nuanced look at different sets of kids, and Sasha’s insightful comment all prove one point: if gaming offers young people the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, printed books provide examples and insights they might have never otherwise imagined. Gaming gives players the experience of process—learning by trial and error, applying knowledge, and making conclusions. Books are kind of like mentors in print, making the process of discovery more evident by allowing the author to step forward and reveal how he came to know what he knows. The more writers show their hand, their process, the more their books provide not only content but guidance.


Going outside the game


That’s the highest level of connection between print and gaming. But many people who are advocates of gaming as learning point to another kind of connection. Squire has been studying at-risk teens playing various iterations of Civilization, a game in which players compete to build nations and empires from the earliest nomadic bands to modern times. He says players use books about real kingdoms and empires as cheat sheets.


Instead of going to a Web site to learn how to get to a new level of Nintendo’s Mario, they go to the shelves to find out the borders of the Roman Empire. What worked for Rome, they reason, is likely to help in Civilization. In other words, engagement in the game makes the players more intellectually curious. That’s a very pragmatic kind of curiosity, but many of us use books and information that way—to supply an answer that we need to solve a problem.


This connection between print and gaming suggests the need for a new kind of book. In the adult world, we’ve seen shelves of self-help, business, and management books taken from history—how Abraham Lincoln or Genghis Khan can teach us to be better managers. Well, why not offer tidbits from history for the gamer looking for an advantage, like what Rome has to teach Civilization players? Sure, you could develop a Web site on the subject, but a book would allow you to slow down, craft answers, slip in a broader historical context and—most importantly—seize a teachable moment.


Do books need to change?


This brings up yet another question: Do books need to be different simply because young adults are so comfortable in the digital world? Many experts have noted that today’s kids are more used to visual stimuli than previous generations, that they expect images everywhere, that they’re daunted by thickets of print pages. Alice Robison, a postdoc who works with Jenkins at MIT, thinks the opposite. She says kids who are accustomed to picking and choosing their own forms of media accept books as books—they don’t need texts to resemble the Web. They just need books to be good at being books.


I’m agnostic on this issue. The Web may not mandate new kinds of books, but it does encourage us to take risks. If kids are more visual and comfortable with the Internet, then let’s try experimenting with new things. Brian Selznick’s masterful The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007) is about the early days of movies, but it also celebrates the new opportunities for blending words and images in our contemporary media environment.


We all know that most teachers and schools are going to do everything possible to resist gaming in classrooms. So that restricts gaming to after-school activities in schools and public libraries, where it’s become a national phenomenon. And that means librarians must become de facto gaming gurus. Who else knows the library and its patrons better than you? It’s an irresistible role, where you’ll be in touch with kids and teachers and become the eyes and ears of everything related to gaming.


There will always be a place for books. Gaming and virtual worlds are just extensions of the wonderful journey provided by books, allowing young adults to try out different versions of those experiences. Books provide examples of what kids experience in games—and librarians are the ones who will make the connection.


And that’s just the beginning of the connection between digital and print. Squire wonders if authors might post draft versions of their books as “open source” materials, letting readers fiddle with the text while the writer finishes his own version. Librarians could contact publishers to make it possible. Personally, as an author of YA nonfiction, I’d like nothing better than to work with some savvy teens to create digital games that echo the themes of my books.


Digital & print: together forever


The digital world frees the print world to do what it does best—present a crafted, composed, fully articulated argument or story. The virtual libraries in Second Life and Teen Second Life that Lori Bell and Kitty Pope, of the Alliance Library System in Illinois, and Kelly Czarnecki, of the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, have set up offer new ways to explore imaginary worlds in which players can listen to podcasts, audiobooks, and music. Visitors can even experience the lives of characters in a novel or meet real-life historical figures in biographies.


All of these are ways that virtual and real-world books can intersect. Imagine how exciting it would be if the Young Adult Library Services Association offered digital links to the teen Best Books discussions at American Library Association conferences? And what about holding national Best Books meetings in Teen Second Life? The possibilities are endless. The digital world is not a threat to print. It’s an opportunity for books to become much better—and you are the ones who can help make that happen. I can’t wait to see what you and the teenagers you work with will create.



Author Information

Marc Aronson is a School Library Journal columnist. His latest book, Up Close: Robert F. Kennedy, will be published this month by Viking.


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 at 1:13 pm and is filed under Clients, Friends and Colleagues, Industry News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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