It’s 10:48 p.m. on a Sunday night. I know because that’s the moment my teen son starts tapping on the door to wake me up. I squint one eye open long enough to examine my bedside clock.
“Mo-om! Audible's not working! I need help!”
If I weren’t so tired, I'd find this hilarious. My 16 year old asking me for any technological support is nothing short of ludicrous, since he does computer programming and, well, unlike some people around here, he wasn’t born somewhere in the middle of the past century when the single glowing thing in my childhood home was a clunky TV with only six channels that you had to stand up to change.
“Pl-ease! I’m going to fail the English quiz tomorrow if I can’t read it.”
This is also funny because my very smart son doesn’t intend to read The Grapes of Wrath. He’s going to listen to it on his phone, just the same way he listened to The Great Gatsby last month.
“Arghhhhh!” he yells, stretching out the word into a sentence out as only a teenager can. “Help me!”
I stumble out of bed and into his room where, what do you know, a vestige of times past is affably sitting on his nightstand: a paperback copy of Steinbeck's classic.
“You have it right there!" I growl. "Just read the book!”
“You don't understand! I read books better by listening to them!”
There is no winning this fight, this attempt to have him hold the unwieldy foreign object in his hands and, as my people learned to do long ago, read left to right, turning pages from book's beginning to end. I log into my Amazon account and download the book. I’m just about launch into my, “When I was your age, we read actual books” speech but, in a rare moment of parental control, I stop myself. Moralizing about the superiority of consuming a book the right way will ring hollow and induce no end of eye-rolling.
In the morning, I whine to my husband why I’m so tired and he starts in with me, that I should just have made the kid read the book. “That’s not really reading," he says. "It kind of feels like he's cheating.”
And just like that, I’m on my son’s side. He has the technology to listen to books, I argue, why not use it if that’s how he “reads”? The truth is I know better: we've had too many years of me trying to foist books on him that remain defiantly shut. Despite the fact his two parents are writers and editors and have stacks of books littering the house, the majority of his entertainment and education is found primarily on screens, with some exception. Textbooks he’ll happily consume, and an occasional magazine article, especially if it’s about physics or biology, but otherwise, the whole lot of dusty old tomes could go the way of the great library at Alexandria, with nary a teen tear shed.
"I'm not so sure," I respond. "As long as he's enjoying to and listening to the story, why does it matter if he uses his eyes or ears?"
My husband will have none of it. "He's not exercising a part of the brain that is essential to personhood."
Personhood?!! Geesh. Anyway, yes, arguably you may gain less language acquisition since there's something about seeing a curious new word pop out as you read it over to take it in. Or that you may not marvel in the same way at breathtaking passages that are the stuff of so many dog-eared books. Or that your neurons aren't making the same connections through listening, not looking. Finally, maybe your own imagination doesn't stretch quite as far since the narrator is interpreting the author's words for you, giving voice to the Heathcliff and Jane Eyre he imagines.
But if there are studies proving reading a book by listening to a book doesn't do as much for your brain or learning, I haven't found them. Can't a person hearing a story similarily follow the plot, feel for the characters, and derive the same pleasure from a great story artfullly told - thereby gaining what a recent study found are the brain-boosting benefits of reading fiction, including flexing the imagination and empathizing with others?
Certainly, a year or two ago, I would have stood passionately on the side of the - as my son puts it - "boring" book, but recently people like author and activist Ben Foss, who talks about how technology can help different kinds of learners get an incredible education in ways they couldn't in years past, has radically altered my view.
I've also been swayed by the likes of educator Jim Trelease, who argues that no matter what age, being read aloud to holds vast benefits for kids of all ages – even grown-up kids like me who now, confession time, listen to most of her books on her runs since it's near impossible with work and kids to find time to sit down and read one of the 10 books stacked next to my bedside, a towering symbol of false hope that one day I'll make time to read them.
And if in our too busy, digitally overloaded world, the only way to actually read a great book is my son's way, to that I say, get me my headphones. It's time to read.