I don't often draw on the literary insights of my friend Matthew Reilly when thinking about the future of publishing, but Matthew has argued a couple of times over the years that books such as the ones he writes–hyper accelerated action stories unencumbered by too many inconvenient layers of meaning–are not the enemy of literature. (I'd actually argue that Matthew is a great friend of literature because the sales of his books subsidise the cost of publishing widely unread, dialogue-driven character studies, in which not much happens, and almost nothing blows up).
The enemy of books, are not other books. A sale to Matthew Reilly almost certainly isn't a loss that Tim Winton. But Riley can provide a gateway reading experience that can, many years later, eventually lead to Winton. Very few teenage boys are going to pick up a copy of Cloudstreet. But with a little bit of encouragement they'll jump straight into Ice Station or Area 7.
The question is, how much encouragement do they need to get there in the first place? And increasingly the answer is: more than many people are willing to provide. Big dumb genre books where things blow up and objects move quickly are perfect reading fodder for teenage boys. They can get them used to the idea of sitting still with the written word for hours at a time, possibly even leading them to contemplate reading some words that have been written without quite so many explosions. But they are never going to get there if, as children, they were offered the choice between the written word and the glowing screen.
Here's a hard truth from someone who loves his gaming. I'm coming to the conclusion that games can be very, very bad for kids. Not that they have to be bad for kids. Just that they can be.
Modern video games, especially those designed for handheld gaming systems, be they Nintendos, PSPs or, increasingly, phone-based games, are so beautifully realised as pieces of immersive entertainment that there is no way a dusty old book can compete with them. Not on a level playing field.
With the imminent launch of the Nintendo 3 DS system the appeal of handheld gaming systems, to tiny little minds is only going to become more urgent. (I know this because my own tiny little mind is unfeasibly excited by the idea of 3-D gaming system that doesn't require you to wear a ridiculous pair of glasses).
Video games are addictive. I say this as a hopeless addict myself. Like many people I have had to remove all of the games from my hard drive, even going so far as to throw the discs out of my office. There have been times when I've asked people to take the discs from my consoles and hide them from me, so that I have some chance of at least getting on with my deadlines.
I know all about digital crack.
And that's what handing a kid something like a DS, or even an iPhone loaded up with Angry Birds is. You're giving them a crack pipe.
God knows I am only too aware of how tempting that can be when you're sitting in a restaurant, or a waiting room or anywhere with a couple of kids in desperate need of distraction. In many of those cases it's just not appropriate for them to whip out a book. But a phone? Too easy.
Here you go, kid, look after yourself while the grown-ups talk. They're like magic, these things. You can take kids anywhere now, as long as you have enough apps to keep them sitting still.
I fear is a price to be paid for it though, which is that increasingly children will look at passive, non-interactive, old, old media like the written word with weary contempt.
This is an edited extract from a blog post originally published at the Brisbane Times.