“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”- Groucho Marx
If you were born before the year 2000, books, and paper were probably a major part of your life. Books, or at least books as they were known then, are on the verge of going extinct as electronic tablets, Kindle books, Nook, and other electronic devices run the risk of making bound books and newspapers obsolete. When I saw the Groucho Marx quote which starts this article I laughed to myself and said in 2015, the light inside of a dog would be perfect for reading. While there is more ease of access to written information than any time before, we are losing something very healthy by the loss of traditional books, newspapers, and paper reading material.
I remember being six years old and becoming an avid reader. My mother nurtured this desire of mine by enrolling me in what was then called a “book club,” where on a monthly basis you received a book in the mail. From somewhere around 1960 to 1962 I was a proud and probably charter member of the “The Cat in the Hat” book club. I remember receiving my first two additions in this series, “The Cat in the Hat,” and “The Cat Hat Comes Back.” For the next two years or so I received almost everything written by Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. The silly prose of Dr. Seuss were easy to follow and, so I thought at the time, easy-to-understand. His writing, although simple, was actually a lot more meaningful and profound, but that’s a deeper topic for a later article. There probably isn’t a parent truly worth the label of Mom or Dad who hasn’t spent at least a few evenings reading their child “Green Eggs and Ham,” one of Seuss’s classics. For many children, sitting each evening with mom or dad and listening to the same story over and over again is one of the most remembered parts of early childhood. I’m not sure if it would have the same impact if mom or dad reads it on a Kindle or iPad.
Later in life, when a child became old enough to read independently, there began to be a fascination with comics, book series such as “The Hardy Boys,” or the “Nancy Drew Mysteries,” which were eagerly read, swapped, and shared by many children of that generation. Like the work of Dr. Seuss, they were pretty predictable, but we read them anyway often finding ourselves unable to wait for the next chapter, or book. Every Sunday was punctuated by a battle with my older brother over who would get various parts of the Sunday newspaper first. He, being older, always got the sports page, while I had to settle for the comics. Looking back now it’s easy to see the positive benefit it had for our minds, attitudes, worldview, and socialization skills.
The reality is there is something very grounding and secure about the tactile experience of reading a book, magazine, or printed literature. The very experience of opening that book, hearing that binding crack, thumbing through the pages, referring to an index, or checking out a book from the library played an important role in the intellectual and emotional development of anyone born before the year 2000. One would be far more capable of focusing on that book because of the lack of distraction within it. For example, if your reading a Kindle book you also have access to thousands of other books potentially at your fingertips. Not sure about you, but it would’ve been very hard for me to focus on one thing at a time when I was a 12-year-old.
A lot of research indicates today that people who read before bedtime will find it in either sedating or stimulating, depending on which medium they are reading from. Studies show that people who are reading from traditional books, or magazines, are more likely to fall asleep easily than those who are reading electronic devices. Studies done at Penn State University show that iPads, iPhones, and Kindle have higher than normal concentrations of blue light waves than natural light does. Anne-Marie Chang, assistant professor of bio-behavioral health at Penn State summarized their findings, “This is different from natural light in composition, having a greater impact on sleep and circadian rhythms.” The study observed 12 adults for two weeks, comparing when the participants read from an iPad, serving as an e-reader, before bedtime to when they read from a printed book before bedtime. The researchers monitored the participants’ melatonin levels, sleep, and next-morning alertness, as well as other sleep-related measures. They found that those who read from electronic devices took over 10 minutes longer to fall asleep, had poor quality of sleep, and were deficient in REM sleep – the dream stage of sleep which is vitally important for one’s mental health and emotional stability. The electronic readers also made it more difficult to wake up fresh the next day. Similar studies done at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston had a similar finding.
Another aspect of this loss of traditional paper is the spontaneous use of electronic devices in order to capture thoughts. Years ago, I remember having an English teacher or two that required us to keep a journal. For a boy in middle school, this is a real stretch. Girls, on the other hand were more capable of this kind of introspection because of their earlier emotional development.
A couple of years ago, in a hospital-based program that I manage, we had a patient admitted because he posted a suicide note on Facebook. He really didn’t intend to die, but he was desperate for someone to care about him and convince him to get the help that he knew that he needed, but didn’t have the courage to ask for. I can only wonder what would have happened if his “Facebook friends” had decided that they didn’t want to get involved and unfriended him. Of course we all know and have heard stories of people who have completely embarrassed themselves through drunken texting, Facebook posts, or nasty emails sent while intoxicated. Many think that breaking up with someone through a text message, rather than in person, is rather classless and mean spirited. Maybe, maybe not. Previous generations did the same thing, often through a well crafted, hand written, letter. In the electronic age, it seems to be the same thing.
A 2011 report put out by the State of the Paper Industry reported that consumption of paper in North America declined 24 per cent between 2006 and 2009. In fact, the results are the same for the rest of the world with the exception of China. It is estimated that over 20,000 people per day are starting online blogs. It would appear that something significant and revolutionary is happening here, we just want to be a little more clear on the impact that it is having on society.
The reality of this kind of activity is that our deepest, darkest thoughts are temporary and often fleeting. We usually get through it a lot faster than we would have thought. Twenty-five years ago you would’ve gone to the mailbox and retrieved that ill thought out letter the next day. Not so today. The push of a button can make a poorly planned journal entry a viral, and potentially international event.
Don’t get me wrong, I love technology as much as the next person, probably more. It’s just that I believe we have lost a lot because of the desire to go paperless in our lives.
“There is, of course, always the personal satisfaction of writing down one’s own experiences so they may be saved, caught and pinned under glass, hoarded against the winter of forgetfulness. Time has been cheated a little, at least, in one’s own life, and a personal, trivial immortality of an old self assured.”- Anne Morrow Lindbergh
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