Editorial / September 2010 (Issue 12)

The Mortuary and the App
In this issue of Cha, we have a special section of essays devoted to picture book authors, curated by our Reviews Editor Eddie Tay. In one of these pieces, "Portrait of a Children's Book Author as a Young Reader", Malaysian writer Margaret Hui Lian Lim beautifully describes her introduction to the world of fiction. Lim, who spent part of her formative years living in Kuching in Sarawak, had limited access to books as a child. During her first years as a primary student, there was no library in her mission school (it got one later) and the local British Council Library did not stock titles for children. She did, however, have one source of books: the patient library at the hospital where her father worked. While the first-class ward of the hospital was being renovated, its books were temporarily stored in a disused mortuary. Lim's father, recognizing her passion for reading, gave his daughter the key to the room. For the young woman, it was life-changing moment:
I went unaccompanied, so hungry was I for reading material that I had no fear of the ghosts that reputedly haunted this place. My heart did thud though as I unlocked the door. A murky ray filtered through the dirty panes of this one window and lighted grudgingly upon the books piled up against one wall and sliding to the floor in a muddle.

O, wonder! O, brave new world. Miranda could not have been more overcome with amazement and delight.

Lim's excitement is palatable in these lines, an excitement I think many young bibliophiles feel when they first get hooked, even if their discovery of literature isn't quite as adventurous or romantic. It is hard to imagine that today many kids in the developed world (the situation is sadly different for young people elsewhere) would need to run a gauntlet of ghosts in a mortuary, climb into an attic or even search a dusty library to find something to read. Instead they have access to thousands books, marketed and segmented to meet their needs and age, a perfectly graded progression from pictures to paragraphs. Well-meaning aunts give charmingly illustrated volumes as gifts, school and public libraries stock the latest titles, the internet offers a vast resource of age-appropriate material. There is, in short, a lot out there to entice the eager young reader.

Such eager young things are often aspirational in their reading: they turn the pages in search of experiences beyond their own. For many children—and this was certainly the case for Lim, who cherished adult adventures stories and The Illiad above all else—the attraction of reading is the potential discovery of something more grown-up than themselves, a slightly taboo introduction to adult things. (One of the secrets of children's book publishing is to write slightly older than the target audience, so that readers can imagine themselves more worldly and mature than they actually are.) At least this has traditionally been the case. Whether kids will continue to try and grow up through books is uncertain. It seems difficult to imagine the youth of today needing to resort to anything as quaint as perusing a novel to learn about sex.

Many wonder if young people will resort to anything as quaint as reading a novel at all with all the forms of distraction available to them. And there may be some cause for concern. Will our kids still choose the pleasures of the written word when much more immersive and immediate forms of entertainment are available? Will they read Issac Asimov when they can play BioShock? Is their ability to focus on an extended piece of writing being hampered by the hyperactivity of the internet? Maybe. Maybe not. The only thing that it is really safe to say about these questions is that it is too soon to tell.

If our media landscape does tell us one thing, though, it is that humans still crave stories. The written word remains one of the most potent forms of story-telling, and at least for now many kids are still seduced by its charms. And for those who aren't, well, I am not sure it is time to panic. Despite our romanticism, it is important to recall that not every child in the past approached books with the passion of a Margaret Lim. And although early childhood reading is undoubtedly beneficial, many who don't read as kids still manage to grow into it—Tammy Ho, my co-editor for one. Tammy barely read as a child but is now the most bookish person I know. (We can't take a day trip without at least three novels.) Nor do I think that—and this is perhaps a mildly heretical statement for the editor of a literary journal—we should always stress to our kids the value of novels and poetry over other forms of expression to the extent that we often do. There is nothing innate about writing: it too is a technology (albeit a highly successful one) just like the other devices which have the professional fretters so worried. Who can predict what brilliant artistic forms the non-readers of today will generate on their touch screens? And it's not like the digital revolution has killed reading off anyway—quite the contrary. The internet has resulted in a proliferation of words like never before. You might quibble over what our children are scanning, about the detrimental effects of some debatable usage, the logorrhea of certain bloggers or the shortening of attention spans, but it would hard to argue that they aren't consuming enough text.

Nor is all this reading being done online. Young Adult novels, many of them quite serious, are one of the hottest parts of the publishing industry. The Harry Potter and the Twilight series reveal that kids will buy books if you can find the right formula.

One part of this formula has always been serialization, a fact I was reminded of recently. As part of my day job as an editor, I occasionally need to attend photo shoots. This particular shoot took place in a family home in which several children lived. One of them, a boy of about ten years old judging by the decorations in his room, had a bookshelf full of several neatly ordered fiction collections. This impulse to gather a series of books reminded me of my own childhood; it brought back memories of compulsively rearranging a Narnia box set and of being nagged by a feeling of inadequacy one whole summer after finding a frustratingly incomplete set of Fables of the Green Forest volumes in our cabin. His library also made me think of my cousin—an avid reader of the-stay-under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight sort—and his fondness for books from the Stratemeyer Syndicate—both the blue covered Hardy Boys titles and the yellow covered Tom Swift ones. This young man probably would have gotten along just fine with my Korean students, who gave me excited summaries of their latest Harry Potter acquisitions, bought in hardcover and in English on the release date.

This impulse to collect is one that originates, I think, from both the innate curiosity of children and their desire to be able to put limits on their experiences and environment. In serials, kids find a perfect outlet to do both—a way not only to escape into a fictional world, but also to control and organize it. And perhaps in so doing put some order on their own lives. It is a desire which publishers understand well, and exploit effectively by coming out with an endless series of series, all designed to keep kids reading and parents buying. They know that young readers are some of the true completists of the book world, a culture which is itself obsessed with collecting. Readers as a whole are avid textual hunter-gatherers. What are the great libraries and their attempt to assemble and systematize all knowledge, but child-like collecting writ large? Doesn’t our tendency to build and display our own Great Libraries of Alexandria suggest a psychology not unlike that of teenaged obsession with the Marvel Universe?

Soon with the way the internet is going, we will all be able to be completists with little or no effort, great archivists at the touch of a button. Just open your Library of Congress App and you will have all the reading material you could ever ask for. The kids too will have access to the same dizzying choice of texts. I have a feeling they might even choose to read some of them, discover a few grown up things through means that do not require lying about their age. Discovering the pleasures of the written word on their iphone will undoubtedly lack the romance of Margaret Lim's introduction to books. And in a world of instant and unlimited choice, some things may be lost in the ease of access—some of the discipline and the sense of achievement that comes from having to work for what you want, perhaps some of the tactile pleasure of pulling a book from the shelf. But on the whole, I think the future looks bright for young readership. An infinite supply of books is infinitely better than not having enough to read. And do you really want your kids snooping around old mortuaries anyway?

Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
25 September, 2010

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