My eldest son is now in middle school and has begun making a case for us giving him his own iPhone. This, of course, terrifies me, and I’m kind of obsessing about why the idea bothers me so much. I mostly fear that it’s the end of innocence, the end of true childhood, and the end of a certain kind of be-here-now, live-in-the-moment era of his life. This in turn has made me think about why books matter now more than ever. In a time when all of us are being constantly distracted by our devices, books are a shining beacon of hope.
For one thing, books are immersive. In a day and age dominated by 140-character tweets and Insta-snap-chat-everything, books encourage us to sit down and stay awhile. We don’t read books in thirty-second intervals or jump from book to magazine to newspaper to another book all in the blink of an eye. We choose one, carve out a quiet moment, and give it our gloriously undivided attention.
Books are about taking an emotional deep dive. Again, while our phones encourage us to skate along the surface at breakneck speed, book-length stories engage our hearts and souls in a completely different way. They force us to experience emotions beyond the world of LOL and LMAO. With the best books, we face moral quandaries, heroism, weakness, flawed human beings navigating a complex world.
And even the most harrowing page-turners demand a certain kind of investment and patience. Books are not about instant gratification. They are the opposite of life reduced to emojis. They are something that takes days—sometimes weeks—of commitment. And that is part of the reason they stay with us.
Reading is also a solitary act. In an era when we are constantly—maddeningly!—pulled out of the moment by pinging and ringing and chiming of one kind or another, when we are at the mercy of everyone all the time and everyone expects an instant reply, books enable us to check out for a while.
I’m not under the illusion that I can lure my son into forgetting about the temptations of technology by lining his walls with books. And I know smartphones—and all that goes with them—are with us to stay. But the fact that people still love books—despite the myriad other ways they might occupy themselves—gives me hope when I’m feeling defeated by the insatiable, powerful magnetic pull of the modern world.