Write Stuff – There’s an App for That

Are you reading these words? According to The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, you are. As the second edition of CanOx says, to read is to ?look at and understand the meaning of written or printed words or symbols.? These days, though, that definition might not be enough. With the separate worlds of books and apps merging in new and unpredictable ways, It’s time to redefine just what reading is?and isn’t.

Traditionally, reading isn’t simply any act of deciphering words. Scanning billboards or checking bus schedules doesn’t usually count when compared to the sustained, immersive experience found with books or magazines. But plenty of texts fit the bill: books, newspapers, magazines, and poems, to name a few. Those forms can differ by hundreds of pages (think a Harry Potter book versus a slim volume of poetry), but they all conform to what we think of as engaging us in ?reading.?

Now suppose we add some pictures. Photographs, line drawings, full-colour illustrations?they fill the pages of everything from Sunday newspapers to kids? picture books, but the text that accompanies them still falls within the standard notion of reading material. When it comes to the burgeoning world of book apps, though, there’s a debate brewing over whether this new digital form truly counts as reading, or whether It’s undermining our ability to read at all.

So what is it about a book app’s combination of words and images that has so many people worried it doesn’t qualify as true reading? It can’t be the form’s reliance on graphics. After all, comic books have drawn millions of people, young and old, into the world of words. And graphic novels have earned a well-respected place in the literary canon?Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

We also celebrate the role of picture books in helping our children learn to read. Often, those books emphasize bright, colourful images while including only a word or two on each page. They even can incorporate basic interactive tools, such as finger-puppet caterpillars or various fabrics to represent fur and feathers.

True, That’s a far cry from the whirling, swirling interactivity of most book apps. In a recent Globe and Mail article, successful children’s author Marie-Louise Gay notes that such a high level of digital immersion makes apps more like games than books.

And when it comes to the youngest ?readers,? Gay observes that It’s even possible to ?put an iPad in a baby’s crib, and the pages will turn by themselves,? a development she says is ?dangerous, because It’s like putting a child in front of a TV.?

But focusing on those who are old enough to decipher words, in the issue of book apps versus traditional books (or even e-books) It’s hard to find an aspect of apps that hasn’t, in a more static form, been incorporated in traditional texts for centuries.

Perhaps the biggest argument against book apps is the social interaction that might be lost; for instance, a parent reading aloud to a child. Yet even that stance fails to consider that, for the most part, reading is a solitary pastime. Once we’ve learned to navigate the words and pages on our own, It’s rare that reading remains a communal activity. Other than author events, adults rarely read aloud to each other. And although the tradition of bedtime stories may continue at home (even on an iPad), the classroom setting usually encourages kids to engage in silent reading.

For now, there’s no way to know just how popular book apps will become or remain. Nor can we make an accurate prediction about the long-term effects they’ll have on literacy. Who knows, though?maybe one day, there’ll be an app for that.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several novels, including the suspenseful Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing?and for more musings on the literary world.