Buster on the Screen

My on-going if peripheral interest in children and electronic culture snapped into sharp focus one morning while listening to the news. One of our politicians blithely announced that school libraries and librarians were now unnecessary because children can find everything they need on the ‘Net. Confronted by this statement, I felt like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s table: “The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.” The politician’s statement had a kind of sound-bite logic, yet it revealed a set of dubious assumptions.

First is the assumption that the full record of printed knowledge is now or will at some time be available electronically. Second is the assumption that children do not require the mediation of adults in the search for and use of such information; the traditional role of librarians in acquiring, organizing, and making information accessible is seen as redundant. Finally, the argument against libraries is based on the unquestioned assumption that reading on the electronic media and reading from the printed page are the same activity.

The new electronic media raise a host of questions about children, learning, thinking, knowledge, and reading. These questions are serious and fascinating. How do children assimilate information and meaning from electronic sources? In what sense is an electronic gathering a community? Will the new media spawn genuinely new art forms? Are children on the brink of a major shift in consciousness, or are they simply confronting a new set of toys? In books such a Sven Birkert’s Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age and Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, some of these questions are raised, but I haven’t encountered much thoughtful discussion of a question that currently fascinates me: in what sense are children who are reading on the screen really reading? By reading in this context I don’t mean decoding symbols to find out the population of Peru. I mean the absorbing experience of being taken out of yourself. There is room here for a long, carefully observed individual study, a kind of Cushla and Her Discs.

In the meantime, in the spirit of dipping my toe into deep water, I decided to run a small experiment using myself as a guinea pig. I would read, on screen, a work of fiction for children and compare this experience to reading in its more conventional form. For purposes of this experiment I tried to replicate the whole reading experience, from choice of book right through to post-book chatting. I wanted to read something newly published and original in the electronic medium. I was made immediately aware of the extent to which I live in a book community. I choose what I read based on recommendations from friends and colleagues, reviews, and on browsing in bookstores and libraries. None of these sources was very useful in my search for the electronic book. Finally I found a lead in the “What’s New” section of the Children’s Literature Web Guide. Genial Web master David K. Brown alerted us to the publication, by Dutton, of Bjarne Reuter’s The End of the Rainbow, “only on the Internet and free to all readers.” So far, so good. I had found the electronic equivalent of my friendly, informed literary community, and I was set to read.

I launched my request for the book out into the ozone (an e-mail to buster@penguin.com),.and it came back promptly to my e-mail address. I made a pot of tea, I curled up in an armchair, and for the first time ever I actually put my laptop on my lap. I read The End of the Rainbow in three sittings over the course of one day, with a longish stretch in the armchair, a short read at the kitchen table while I ate lunch, and a final reading in bed. I followed the hero, Buster, through the adventures of his Copenhagen neighborhood, as he coped with bullies, teachers splendid and dreadful, his family problems, his neighbors, and his own affectionate, lateral thinking, anarchistic nature.

In advance of this experience I had expected that the use of a machine for reading would be uncongenial, but in fact it was fine. A laptop radiates a mild pleasant warmth on the lap; it leaves your hands free for your sandwich; and because it contains its own light, it solves the bedside light issue. I was pleasantly surprised. Nonetheless, I found reading th.s book very difficult. I simply couldn’t settle or concentrate. I had to force myself to stay with it. When I read conventionally I tend to carry the story around in my head (and heart) between sittings. Some pad of me is waiting to get back to the fictional world. In this case, however, I couldn’t remember the story when I returned to it, and I was not eager to do so. Reading on the screen turned me into a reluctant reader.

Of course, there was always the possibility that I simply didn’t like the text. Perhaps Buster wasn’t for me. So, still with myself as laboratory rat, I set up a control group and went to the library to borrow Buster’s World, the first of Buster’s stories translated into English and published by Dutton. In the course of reading this volume, I turned back into a reader. I experienced that feeling of surrender, of putting myself in someone’s hands, which is one of the great pleasures of fiction. I entered that place where one is simultaneously away from oneself, in another world, and most fully oneself, recognizing in the character’s perceptions the truth about one’s own experience. I lost track of time.

What was the difference? One issue is mechanical, a matter of pace. I am a fast reader, especially when I’m reading purely for pleasure. Flipping the page does not interrupt the flow of my reading. But the screen contains only about half a page of text, which meant that I was manipulating the words four times for every double-page spread, I seemed to spend more time scrolling than reading.

Reading on the screen also gave me a revelation about my own reading style. I realized that I do not read in a strict linear, steady way. I speed up and low down. I skip. I put my finger in a page that I’ll go back to when I’ve finished the really good bit that I’m on. I even occasionally start in the middle of a book. Looking back, I know that this is a reading style that I developed in childhood to cope with the problem of savoring versus galloping. None of this works on the screen. It is too cumbersome to scroll back and forth. Ironically, the medium which prides itself on being interactive and nonlinear was, in this experience, tiresomely inflexible, ploddingly linear.

My inability to “settle” with the text on the screen might also be related to my association of computer screens with impatience. Because material appears so quickly in this medium, our sense of time is altered. A five-second wait on the screen can feel like a toe-tapping, exasperating eternity. Yet this “just get on with it” mood is deeply antithetical to the reading of fiction.

I admit that in one major way this experiment is invalid. I am an adult. I associate computers with work. The two-year-olds bopping around the CD-ROM station at my library are growing up associating computers with play. Since reading is much more akin to play than to work, that may well mean that in the future they will actually read for pleasure on the screen.

There is a final issue, however. Reading on the screen and then reading a book reminded me of what a multisensual experience a book is. Picking up Buster’s World, I took pleasure in Paul O. Zelinsky’s shiny, colorful dust jacket, with its jazzy, busy, off-kilter feel. Then I opened the book to Zelinsky in a different mood, a contemplative black-on-cream frontispiece that led me right into the text. The soft scrape of my fingers against the pages, the glissando sound of flipping back to a previous chapter. This is not just an adult pleasure, the pleasure of a book collector and typophile. This is an absolute child pleasure. This is the pleasure of someone who knows that carrot cut in sticks taste better than carrots cut in coins; that the Snowy Day that Grandma owns is a different book altogether than the Snowy Day in the library. In a recent childhood memoir, writer Cynthia Ozick remembers lying in a hammock on hot summer afternoon reading books from the Traveling Library: “Inside my hammock cave the melting glue of new bindings sent out a blissful redolence.” For all the multimedia claims of the new technologies, I haven’t seen one that promises to enclose you in the essence of summer.

This experiment has raised more questions than it has answered. I did not find reading Bjarne Reuter on the ‘Net a congenial experience, but, according to the publisher, if it were not for the ‘Net, I would not have had the book at all. “The harsh realities of today’s market for translated books prohibit traditional publication in bound form … We hope that this break-through publication will both underscore and trigger discussion about the plight of books published in translation.” Given the choice, I would rather have Buster on the ‘Net than not at all. And I could make my own book, after all. As a final stage of my own experiment, I printed out the first chapter to read on paper. This was an amusing experience in terms of playing at being a book designer, as I chose fonts and sizes of type and played with spacing, but after the first chapter I started to feel bleak. If I were to print the whole book, it would end up costing the equivalent of a paperback, I would be left with a cumbersome, difficult-to-store artifact, and all my consumer money would have gone to the manufacturer of my printer cartridges and none to publisher or writer.

This whole issue is not just about the plight of books in translation. This is ultimately about the whole future of reading. Thanks to Dutton for raising this issue in such an innovative way. We need to keep this discussion alive. We need to question our assumptions and the assumptions of those who are making decisions for our children. There is something very valuable at stake here, the experience of reading in childhood. Cynthia Ozick says of that hot glue–redolent reading summer, “Have I ever been so safe, so happy, since? Has consciousness ever felt so steady, so unimperilled, so immortal?”

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About Sarah Ellis

Vancouver writer and critic Sarah Ellis is on the faculty of The Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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