Out of the many things I’m excited about, books are the most precious to me. I love everything about them: the stories, the words, the typefaces, the paper, the covers…
My children joke that I can’t pass by a library without going in.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a book in front of me. Many of my best memories have a book linked to them. I’m also trying to build my living around books, words, and publishing.
The older of my two sons is now eight.
As a second grader (in Finland, we start school at the age of seven), he’s at the age where I’d expect him to pick a book and read, read, read…
But as I try to push him gently towards books and the vast repositories of stories, worlds, and ideas they have in store for him, I’m slowly becoming afraid for the future of books and reading. I’m sure Oiva will find books and, with his reader parents’ support, become a reader himself. Many of the kids in his generation probably won’t.
Ironically, the “enemy” is another of my favorites.
As a computer programmer who has spent seven years making games professionally (and all of his youth before that, as a hobby), I’m hesitant to say anything negative about games. I love a well-made game as much as the next person.
But there is something about games that make it extremely hard for reading and books to compete.
Professional game designers are masters of luring the player in. I’ve seen them at work. I’ve seen how they make it easy and exciting to get started and then guide the player by the hand until he or she is completely invested. After this, the player will go through even the most difficult of quests to get the hero where he or she needs to go.
Games are easy to pick up, fun… and addictive. In the best sense of the word.
Let’s compare this to books, starting from the most obvious obstacle.
- To enjoy a book, you have to be a fluent reader. To play a game, you need to know how to use a touch screen interface.
- To pick up a book, you need to believe there’s an adventure hidden in those black and white letters. When you start a game, it immediately throws you in a colorful play world where something is going on all the time.
- And, to make this belief a part of you, you have to struggle through your first books. Books that — no matter how good — you most likely won’t enjoy as much as you should.
In other words, to enjoy reading (and to become a reader), you will have to work. Hard. You will have to toil through the moments when reading feels boring. You will have to pick another book until you find one that speaks to you in a way that makes your mind go “a-ha!”
They never feel like work until you’re already well invested.
They are the opposite of boring.
When I was young (and probably you too), being bored was a part of life. Loading a game on the Commodore 64 took fifteen minutes. Children’s TV shows played only at half past five every night.
Even in that world, not everyone decided to go with books. But books still stood a chance.
There was a good reason for going through all the work of learning to enjoy books. The prize was clear to see: once you became fluent with books, you would never need to be bored again.
Today, books no longer have that advantage.
If you are bored, you can play a game. You can watch Netflix on demand. You can always pick something easy to do. Something you already feel like you know how to do.
In a world of instant gratification, why work hard towards a goal that will only bring you joy much later?
I have many answers, but I don’t think they are the ones my son and his peers will want to hear. But I’m convinced this is a question we need to answer if we want to raise civilized children capable of dreaming and building a better world.
Let’s get to work.