The Unnecessary Joy of Reading

In a few weeks my grandson Alex will turn nine. He is a handsome child, suntanned, with chocolate skin and a well-proportioned body, happy brown eyes and curly brown hair. His energy is contagious, and he has a way of talking to adults as if he were one himself, charming everybody. Being with him is always a pleasure, even when he misbehaves, which is rare.

Almost nine years ago we flew to San Diego to be present at his birth. His mother was to be induced, so we knew the date of delivery. We also knew she would deliver a boy. What we didn’t know was his name. My son said they wanted it to be a surprise. “As soon as you walk into his room you will know,” my son had said when he picked us up at the airport. I admired the love and care that had gone into furnishing that space with a sturdy brown crib, a changing table, shelves with stuffed animals, a mobile and the other usual odds and ends one expects around a new baby. “Well, the name?” I asked slightly disoriented. “You don’t see it?” my son responded disappointed. “On the wall above the crib, Dad, look up there.” And there they were, the four large and colorful letters that I had not noticed until that moment — an A, an L, an E and an X arrayed in a line like shiny stars in a galaxy. I was immediately touched, since the letters spelled my name, meaning that my son and daughter-in-law had chosen it for my grandson in my honor.

Since then, we have come to San Diego every year, several times a year, for weeks at a time to enjoy his presence. He is perfect in so many ways, and I especially, as a writer of fiction, am stumped that his love for technology far exceeds his interest in reading. I don’t have to spell out how many wonderful moments I experienced in my life with a good book in my hand. How happy books made me feel and how well-chosen words on paper elevate me like music.

I often think it’s a matter of circumstances. When I was a child, all my friends read books. We read them, passed them around, and discussed them. Movies were rare, and we had only two black and white TV programs with a few shows on the weekend. No cell phones, iPads, personal computers, video games, no streaming and no Alexa. We played in the streets, invented games and formed groups of friends based on age and interests. Recently I found this quote by C. S. Lewis: “We read to know that we are not alone.”

My grandson is not lonely. When we pick him up from school or camp, he is always surrounded by other children. He engages in prolonged good-byes and yells to all of them, “see you tomorrow!” Boys his age visit him at home, and he goes to play at their places. It is not uncommon though to see the children sit side by side, each on their own tablet.

Like most children of his generation, Alex is passionate about electronics. With some limits imposed by his parents, he can occupy himself with them, instinctively knowing how to navigate them, find games, take pictures, send emails filled with emojis, videotape or talk to Siri. The devices are a part of his universe much more than they used to be a part of his parents’ or ours. Is it bad? Will he know less? Will he be less accomplished or less happy? His parents don’t think so; neither do I, yet, I wouldn’t want him to be missing out on the simple joy of reading.

He certainly likes a good story and has lots of imagination. He is a good listener and his memory is amazing. He is creative and likes to be the center of attention. He puts up shows with himself as the announcer, actor, singer, dancer and director.

Together we watched a good number of movies from Sergeant Stubby to Home Alone to Mary Poppins (old and new) and I saw the pleasure on his expressive face as clearly as a sunrise. He enjoyed watching a Harry Potter movie, but when my wife suggested the book, which had been read by millions of children, he refused to consider it.

This week he attended a computer camp at the Apple store and learned how to make a short movie. He was fascinated and excited. As soon as he got home, he started videotaping everybody. For his main feature he wrote a script, created a trailer, and started with a shot of the surroundings, moved to his plot in a dedicated and consistent way, and closed with a conclusion. His young boy’s crystalline voice provided the necessary commentary on a tone filled with gusto and warm humor.

OK. I get it. Technology it is, but in the not too distant future, will technology be the platform that replaces a great script, a play, a novel, or will it only enhance our ability to virtually create magic and visually develop thought?


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