A good book at bedtime helps a child to wind down, to float away into their imaginations and from there, drift off to sleep. Reading books together help parent and child to bond, to relax, to share. In contast TV and computer games have traditionally been thought of as winding children up, cutting them off from their inner selves and intimate relationships. Isolated? Alienated?
And that may be a crass generalization, but now that we can find stories on mobiles as well as on pages, we realise that a book isn’t an object at all but an experience. Meanwhile the mainstream literary community has been so fixated on defending paper books, they’ve failed to find other ways to define what they most want to preserve about our literary culture.
Bookstart is one amazing project which slips books into children’s lives in the most elegant way. All parents in the UK having their beloved newborn checked over by the Health Visitor at eight months are given a linen bag by this trusted agent of wellbeing. The bag contains two beautifully written and illustrated board books plus an attractively illustrated booklet for parents on the pleasures and benefits of sharing books with babies.  The book stays in the toy box of the child who may not have any other book in the home. The scheme promotes the library as a free, family friendly place to go, and, whether or not parents can read well themselves, all can enjoy showing the pictures to a gurgling babe who will point and laugh merrily. Mums and dads like to be seen with the Bookstart bag, proclaiming their love of books and baby, and the reading habit is embedded in family life. This scheme is run by Booktrust of which I was CEO until 2007.
Of course since setting up if:book London, inspired by Bob Stein’s pioneering Institute for the Future of the Book in New York,  I’ve been arguing that, important as it is to seed the reading habit by putting paper books into the hands of young people, it’s no less vital that children find great literature on the mobiles, consoles and laptops our young are so fixated by. It seems to me wonderful that books are moving onto the mainstage of our culture. So how do we introduce children to what constitutes a healthy diet of online culture? What variant of Bookstart is needed to promote the most imaginative and stimulating apps?
Independent publisher Winged Chariot’s enchanting Emma Loves Pink and The Red Apple are beautiful examples of digital experiences for young children which are clearly in the literary tradition, enhanced not confused by delightful voices and deft touches of animation. This company’s apps and other delights like the Alice In Wonderland with moveable Drink Me bottle, have booklovers (who have argued with me for years about the irreplaceable delights of the book) drooling over my iPad. It’s almost embarrassing how easy they are to convert.
The best reading experiences feel like illicit binges rather than wholesome doses. We want to stimulate compelling digital fiction that switches us on, not turns us off. Our HOTBOOK digital resources for schools includes texts by Cory Doctorow and Geoffrey Chaucer, Mary Shelley and Naomi Alderman, animated and illuminated to explore the fiction of the future. But schools and funders see this kind of resource as something that might tempt boys and other outcasts from literature back into ‘real’ books. Teachers are clinging onto old habits and failing to help their students address the cultural transformation that’s going on in how we read and write the world.
In the UK libraries are one of the many good things threatened with ferocious cuts by the new coalition government. But even though many of us now carry with us portable digital libraries, we still need local spaces to take our laptop-loads of knowledge, to learn how best to use them and share our interests and enthusiasms with others nearby. We need accessible and accountable places as hubs for local learning, enterprise and creativity. Now if:book is working with local writers and the library service to set up ‘The Unlibrary‘, a real workspace with wi-fi linked to an online community for co-working and literary collaboration. With broadband and talent there’s nothing to stop such a space becoming an important production house for literature.
sleeping.jpgIt was George Oates of the Open Library who last year set up a collection of photographs on Flickr of people asleep in libraries. I still find these curiously moving images of free readers, metaphors for the all important dreamspace that books and the places they live in have given us in our lives – a dream space we must fight to retain and enhance in the digital future, now that the word has been set free.

About Chris Meade
Chris Meade is Director of if:book. You can read more about Chris here. And you can follow Chris on Twitter here.