Saturday, December 5, 2015

Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves

Via MF on Facebook

[JB comment -- But books are not a replica of real-life, face-to-face conversation; and CDS/records are not a replica of a live concert]

DEC. 5, 2015
Future Tense

image from article

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 Radio­-Television­-Film 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 seldom­
used 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’

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 grade-level
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

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
9-­year­-old? True, the 9­-year-­old 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 e-­book, 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

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 9-­year­-old may not be inclined to read an op-­ed 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 high­-bandwidth 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 B­-side “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 lived­-in feel of a piece of beloved art.
To a child, a parent’s dog-­eared 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

Teddy Wayne’s next novel, “Loner,” will be published in 2016.

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