OUR (BARE)SHELVES, OUR SELVES

I was reading my ‘digital’ copy of the NY Times this morning and came upon this article. I believe it is the perfect compliment, and another side, of my blog yesterday, You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks. Read on.     deadhead1155

DEC. 5, 2015 Future Tense By TEDDY WAYNE  

When I was 13, in the early 1990s, I dug through my parents’ cache of vinyl records from the ’60s and ’70s. We still had a phonograph, so I played some of them, concentrating on the Beatles. Their bigger hits were inescapably familiar, but a number of their songs were new to me.

Were I a teenager in 2015, I may not have found “Lovely Rita” or acquired an early taste at all for the Liverpudlian lads. The albums stacked up next to the record player, in plain sight for years, would be invisible MP3s on a computer or phone that I didn’t own. Their proximal existence could have been altogether unknown to me.

S. Craig Watkins, a professor who studies the digital media behavior of young people in the department of Radio­Television­Film at the University of Texas at Austin, said that he and his family almost exclusively stream music now in their home and that he and his wife stored their old CDs in a seldomused cabinet. To his teenage daughter, “those CDs are, at best, background matter,” he said.

“I can’t recall her ever taking time to search through what’s in there,” Professor Watkins said. “But I could imagine that when she gets a little older, it might become meaningful to her — that those artifacts are a way to connect back to us.”

Sometimes, though, he and his daughter discuss what is on their devices’ playlists.

There are several big upsides to growing up with streaming audio, one of which is accessibility: assuming I was interested enough, I could have explored, for free, the Beatles’ catalog on the Internet far beyond the scope of my parents’ collection.

But in our digital conversion of media (perhaps buttressed by application of the popular KonMari method of decluttering), physical objects have been expunged at a cost. Aside from the disappearance of record crates and CD towers, the loss of print books and periodicals can have significant repercussions on children’s intellectual development.

Perhaps the strongest case for a household full of print books came from a 2014 study published in the sociology journal Social Forces. Researchers measured the impact of the size of home libraries on the reading level of 15­ year­old students across 42 nations, controlling for wealth, parents’ education and occupations, gender and the country’s gross national product.

After G.N.P., the quantity of books in one’s home was the most important predictor of reading performance. The greatest effect was seen in libraries of about 100 books, which resulted in approximately 1.5 extra years of gradelevel reading performance. (Diminishing returns kick in at about 500 books, which is the equivalent of about 2.2 extra years of education.)

Libraries matter even more than money; in the United States, with the size of libraries being equal, students coming from the top 10 percent of wealthiest families performed at just one extra grade level over students from the poorest 10 percent.

The implications are clear: Owning books in the home is one of the best things you can do for your children academically. It helps, of course, if parents are reading to their children and reading themselves, not simply buying books by the yard as décor.

“It is a big question of whether it’s the books themselves or the parental scholarly culture that matters — we’re guessing it’s somewhere in between,” said Mariah Evans, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. “The books partly reflect intelligence.”

Although the study did not account for e­books, as they’re not yet available in enough countries, Dr. Evans said in theory they could be just as effective as print books in encouraging literacy.

“But what about the casual atmosphere of living in a bookish world, and being intrigued to pull something off the shelf to see what it’s like?” she asked. “I think that will depend partly on the seamless integration of our electronic devices in the future.”

We’re not quite there. Amazon Kindle’s Family Library enables two adults in a household to share content with each other and up to four children. But parents must explicitly select which of their books their kids can read. So much for the “casual atmosphere of living in a bookish world.”

Will parents go out of their way to grant access to their latest book to their 9­year­old? True, the 9­year­old is unlikely to pick up a physical copy of “Between the World and Me” on his or her own, either, but at least the child sees that tome on a shelf and incorporates it into an understanding of what a life of the mind entails. As an unshared e­book, it is never glimpsed, let alone handled and, possibly, someday read.

Similarly inconvenient, Home Sharing on iTunes requires the other user’s computer or device to be on and the application to be open. Sharing must also be reciprocal — not necessarily an incentive for misunderstood teenagers.

What is literarily modeled for children extends beyond books and records. The classic Americana image of a father poring over a newspaper as he contemplatively smokes a pipe in an armchair seems a little more scholarly, if also more carcinogenic, than one of a dad compulsively swiping his iPad while vaping.

But the decline of print journalism means that millions of children are eating breakfast at tables without any reading material other than what they bring. That hypothetical 9­year­old may not be inclined to read an op­ed about Syria in the family’s copy of the newspaper, but at least that child sees the headline and is reminded of the existence of the outside world, for better or worse. And it would take very curious teenagers to read, during a hurried meal before school, an adult periodical online over whatever they typically default to on their own devices.

Digital media trains us to be high­bandwidth consumers rather than meditative thinkers. We download or stream a song, article, book or movie instantly, get through it (if we’re not waylaid by the infinite inventory also offered) and advance to the next immaterial thing.

Poking through physical artifacts, as I did with those Beatles records, is archival and curatorial; it forces you to examine each object slowly, perhaps sample it and come across a serendipitous discovery.

Scrolling through file names on a device, on the other hand, is what we do all day long, often mindlessly, in our quest to find whatever it is we’re already looking for as rapidly as possible. To see “The Beatles” in a list of hundreds of artists in an iTunes database is not nearly as arresting as holding the album cover for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Consider the difference between listening to music digitally versus on a record player or CD. On the former, you’re more likely to download or stream only the singles you want to hear from an album. The latter requires enough of an investment — of acquiring it, but also of energy in playing it — that you stand a better chance of committing and listening to the entire album.

If I’d merely clicked on the first MP3 track of “Sgt. Pepper’s” rather than removed the record from its sleeve, placed it in the phonograph and carefully set the needle over it, I may have become distracted and clicked elsewhere long before the B­side “Lovely Rita” played.

And what of sentiment? Jeff Bezos himself would have a hard time defending the nostalgic capacity of a Kindle. azw file over that of a tattered paperback. Data files can’t replicate the lived­in feel of a piece of beloved art. To a child, a parent’s dog­eared book is a sign of a mind at work and of the personal significance of that volume.

A crisp JPEG of the cover design on a virtual shelf, however, looks the same whether it’s been reread 10 times or not at all. If, that is, it’s ever even seen.

A version of this article appears in print on December 6, 2015, on page ST2 of the New York edition with the headline: Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s