The now and then of books

file0002103651804Master Eight is fascinated with hearing about “the olden days” at the moment. Sadly, the days he means when he uses that phrase are the days of my own childhood. I keep trying to tell him that, no, it’s my parents who grew up in the olden days, but to no avail. As far as he’s concerned, my childhood is closer to the age of the dinosaurs than to the present reality of his every day life.

A few months ago, I told him the story of the day I was born.

“My mum, Nana, started feeling funny,” I said, “and had pains in her back. My dad was worried about her, and decided to call the doctor to check if he should be doing anything. But they didn’t have a phone at their house, so he had to run down the street — in his pyjamas (this elicited the laugh I expected) — to the pay phone and call the doctor. The doctor said: ‘Son, your wife’s having a baby. Take her to the hospital!’ And a little while later, I was born.”

Master Eight listened in rapt attention, giggled in the right places, and nodded along. When I finished telling the story, he looked confused for a minute and asked, “Why didn’t they have a phone in their house?”

I explained that, back in those days, not everyone had a phone in their house, so they had to use pay phones. He still looked confused, and then his face filled with understanding. “Oh!” he said. “And his mobile was out of battery!”

I think that moment, more than any other, made me realise exactly how removed his childhood is from mine — he lives in a world where not having a landline is fine, but not having a mobile phone is inconceivable. A world where not being able to look up information immediately from the comfort of your phone or laptop is an alien concept. A world where communication takes place instantly or never — there is no in between.

Since then, I’ve noticed it more and more in the books we read together. Sometimes when I’m reading him Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton or Norton Juster, he looks at me and asks why people didn’t just use their phones. Or why they didn’t just google in the information.

I’ve spoken to people who feel this disconnect makes those older stories incomprehensible to children of today, or who avoid reading stories that will confuse young readers. Me? I take a different view.

Every gap in understanding that results in a question about technology is a window into a conversation about the way the world has changed, and a brainstorming session on how the world of the future will look. And, let me tell you this. If it turns out half as wonderous as my son imagines, it’s going to be a bright and shiny future.

I hope I’m here to see it.

(This post was inspired by Owen Duffy’s The books I loved as a child have lasted — but the world has changed.)


Filed under Life With Kids, Reading

10 responses to “The now and then of books

  1. Yes, it will confuse them, but that’s a good thing. Also, it will help them have understanding and compassion for all the people living in the world today who don’t have smartphones and laptops and so on.

    It’s interesting to think about the effect on stories. Some stories would only work in a world with modern technology — others only work without it. Chris Carter has said that the thing that made X-Files possible was cell phones — Mulder and Scully had to be able to be in constant contact when investigating in different places. The dynamic of the show was based on that.

    It’s funny now to watch the first few episodes, before they got the cell phones, and see how it isn’t working

    • I was actually talking to a friend about that very thing only a couple of days ago, actually. That some stories only work with technology, and some stories only work in the absence of it. I find it interesting the way some authors choose to avoid the use of technology (eg. In Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series, magic causes technology to go awry), while other authors, such as your X-Files example, use technology to enhance the story — and, without it, the story wouldn’t work at all.

      I think it’s a valuable thing for children to understand that the technology they take for granted is both new and not ubiquitous.

  2. Great post and I agree with you that kids still need to hear these stories or they’d miss out on far more than the adventures of intrepid explorers of the days before cell phones. They’d miss out on fantastical journeys into Harry Potter, Narnia, The Borrowers and The Hobbit! No mobiles or modern technology necessary!

    • You know, I’ve read the boys Narnia, The Hobbit, and the first two books of Harry Potter, and the use of technology has never come up with those books. Perhaps because it’s a fantasy setting, so it seems more “normal” not to have mobile phones? It’s more in books like Around the World in Eighty Days and more “real” stories that it gets noticed. I do love the conversations that those books have spawned — and all the conversations we’ve had about what a world without mobile phones would be like.

      (According to my eldest, a world without phones would be both quieter (no beeps, rings, music, etc) and noisier (more conversation).)

  3. I’m dating myself, but I remember the days when you had to get up to change the channel on the TV, when there were only three U.S. channels (ABC, CBS and NBC). I remember the rabbit ears antenna and phones with a rotary dial. Geez, am I old or what? Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed it.

    • I may be dating myself too, but I remember those days. 🙂 Although I remember Australia having five TV channels when I was a child. Still, walking over to change the channel certainly did away with the channel-flipping that is so easy with a remote control in hand. Perhaps it wasn’t a bad thing at all. 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

      • My father, back in the 1960s, opened up the TV and soldered in a long electric cord between the volume control and the speaker, with a switch on the end. That way, he could sit in his comfortable chair and turn the speaker off during commercials.

        He didn’t care about switching channels a lot — when he watched a show he watched it to the end — but commercials annoyed him, particularly that they were louder than the shows.

  4. My husband and I joke that our daughter will laugh at our use of smartphones as she pulls out her holographic phone and ask us why our phones couldn’t just project 3-D images. I like how you point out that older children’s stories will foster great dialogue. I agree with you. Though my daughter is only half a year old, I already read to her and I can’t wait until she can tell me all her thoughts on the books we read. Great post. Thanks for sharing – it got me thinking.

    • Hahahaha. Yes, I often remind myself that one day, my grandchildren will be referring to today’s world as “the olden days”. I read my boys Around the World in Eighty Days a few months ago, and that was a great chance to talk about a world without air travel, the internet, and phones at all. Master Eight was astounded by the idea that someone could be three days late, and people just waited for him without even knowing where he was. For days afterwards we had conversations that started with questions like: “But, in the olden days when you were a child, what happened if your Mum went to the shop to buy groceries, but then your Dad remebered they needed something else, and he couldn’t just text her to add it to the shopping list???”

      Sounds like your daughter is in for a world of stories as she’s growing up. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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