How cell phone book clubs could help get young people reading and change their lives

Welcome to journalist Bertel King, Jr., LibraryCity’s newest contributor, also an SF/fantasy novelist! Read about him at the end of this cogent essay. Go here to learn how to start your own cell phone book club. Also check out essays here and here.

BertelKingIn 2008, I graduated from Southampton High School, which did an admirable job of preparing me for college. I say “admirable” because at the time I had no idea just how disadvantaged my county was compared to the wealthy suburban schools of Northern Virginia and Richmond that populate most of the state’s universities and, in some cases, the Ivy Leagues. My rural county simply did, and does, not have the resources to compete.

As a student in the Virginia public schools and at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, I noticed a common pattern among the more successful students. They read books as kids. And the earlier they started, the faster they read, the more novels they enjoyed, and the better they fared in life and work.

I personally consumed a blend of media as a kid. I watched plenty of cable television, spent hours playing video games, and, yes, I also read books. But I largely did not see reading as a leisure activity, and I don’t look back on any childhood books nearly as fondly as I do certain cartoons. My love of reading would come later. Unfortunately, while I’m by no means a slow reader, I’m not the kind of person who blows through a novel in an afternoon. Those readers, typically, fell in love with reading earlier in life, and they’ve found it easy ever since.

All things considered, my parents did a phenomenal job with me. They both came from working class families that had more pressing issues than making sure their kids had books to read, and a relatively recently integrated school system had many early lessons to learn when it came to educating children fairly (lessons we’re still learning today). My parents are not fast readers, even now, but they did the best for me that they could. Early on, they enrolled me in the local public library’s summer reading program. So when I wasn’t at school, I was at least reading something, and it helped me connect the concept of reading with things other than homework and school.

The thing is, I never really had much of an issue with reading. If a video game required me to read multiple lines of text, I did so readily. For a while, my favorite types of games were role-playing games that contained hours and hours of reading. My problem was that sitting down with a paper book just wasn’t my idea of fun. Even now, years after I’ve fallen in love with the written word, I still find myself dissatisfied when the time comes to dive into a physical book.

LighaheadTwelveYearsSlaveI can now consume literature in a form factor that doesn’t turn me off (sometimes I use an e-reader like the Nook GlowLight; other times I pull out my smartphone—currently an HTC One M7). More importantly, I don’t have to carry around the same book for weeks and months until I manage to finish it, feeling bad for taking so long or embarrassed that others have seen me carrying around the same book for the better part of a year. Nor do I need to juggle multiple books in a bag just in case I want to read one instead of another later on. With e-books, I get the joy of reading without the burden or the guilt. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read Third Daughter by Susan Kaye Quinn and Journey to Hart’s Halo by Lou Hood, two books I received through StoryBundle. Since every book offered through this site is free of Digital Rights Management, I’ve been able to load them up easily on my Android devices and take them with me everywhere.

Cell phone book clubs—here is an easy guide to starting one—could bring the same feeling of empowerment to leagues of students growing up today. These events would bring students together in one place where they could learn about e-books and the best devices for consuming them. They could get guidance from librarians, teachers and peers alike. There are no shortages of apps and gadgets to choose from, many of which are unheard of to far too many people. A well-chosen $20 phone if need be could be enough for a club member to start out with. Check out these tips, including a guide to Moon+ Reader, one of the better apps for reading on inexpensive Android phones.

The clubs would provide young people with both technical knowledge and motivation to adapt reading to their lifestyles. Both face-to-face and virtual meetings could help expand book-reading into the students’ online worlds—already more text-intensive than the stereotypes would have you believe. Text messages, Twitter, Facebook, and web browsing all involve devouring words. People are used to reading all day long on their phones, even if they’re normally not willing to pick up books. If the clubs encouraged kids to switch to an e-book reading app in between sending off a tweet and checking the latest status updates, they would read books much more often.

In rural communities like the one I was raised in, libraries remain a place where children go to get access to computers and high-speed Internet, a commodity that isn’t always readily available. Cell phone book clubs could give teens something to do when they returned home; reading books would let them use the mobile device they loved without needing an Internet connection. Remember, a memory card for a typical smartphone can hold hundreds and hundreds of e-books for use anywhere—thousands in most cases. So why shouldn’t young people learn to enjoy books at home between text messages when surfing YouTube isn’t an option? Perhaps someday they will want to lose themselves in certain books hour after hour, without interruptions. But this would be a start.

If it’s too difficult to get students focused on books, then inject books into where they’re focused. These days, that’s most likely a gadget.

But don’t get it twisted. Let’s not trick youth into doing something they don’t enjoy. If anything, e-books can help strip reading of the risks that make the activity unenjoyable in the first place. At school, students are trying to discover who they are at the same time that they’re learning what the world is like. Each action puts them at risk of persecution or ridicule from their peers, and the mere act of reading a paper book may potentially make them a subject for jokes. It could make them look nerdy or, ironically, unintelligent if they had been carrying around the same books for too long. If not that, then what they’re reading may be just as suspect. It could also draw in unwanted attention from teachers and parents if they considered what the child was reading to be weird as well. By contrast, e-books create a safe space for people to read what they want, when they want, without dealing with judgment from others. This is an issue that, while less important for adults, is a potential showstopper for many young readers.

The goal here is to get people reading as soon and as often as possible. If we remove as many roadblocks and inconveniences as we can, the activity becomes increasingly attractive. And since the idea is to stick e-books on devices that children already own, cell phone book clubs are a relatively affordable means of achieving this objective.

We should not be held back by our own personal preferences for physical books, e-readers with e-ink displays, or reading e-books off of a tablet. No approach is inherently better than any other, and the idea is to get students interested in any type of reading. Once they’re hooked, they will develop their own preferences over time, and librarians and teachers can help them along in that journey as needed. We just need to empower them to do so. It could change kids’ lives.

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Editor’s note – this article was re-published with permission from the Library City blog.

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