123rf_ereaders_15870135Back in 2012, a New York Times’ headline led off with, “The Bookstore’s Last Stand,” and went on to illuminate the trials of the last big-standing bookstore, Barnes & Noble. Its storied history speaks for itself.

Back in 1873, one Charles Montgomery Barnes went into the used book business in Wheaton, Illinois before    eventually taking his company to Chicago where he sold both new and used books. In 1894, it morphed into the C.M. Barnes Company and dealt solely with school books. But then, in 1902, son William sold his interest in the company, headed to New York, and acquired an interest in educational bookseller Noble & Noble. It was soon renamed Barnes & Noble, with William staying on until 1929. Despite his ultimate departure, the name stuck, and, as I said, the rest is history.

But its very existence is now in doubt, dating back to November, 2007 when Amazon’s Kindle arrived on the scene, putting books onto screens and giving bound versions and booksellers a run for their money. Case in point: Borders’ 650 stores tanked in 2011, and now Barnes & Noble hovers near the edge, these days marketing its own e-reader, the Nook, and stocking its shelves with games and toys, too, in order to stay afloat.

As for e-readers and tablets, a recent Kids & Family Reading Report from Scholastic found that some 46% of children have read at least one book on a device—twice the 2010 number. Moreover …

• 50% of 9- to 27-year-olds said they’d read more if they had greater access to e-books.
• 72% of parents are interested in having their children read e-books.

One reason is the lure of their animation and audio, which, in turn, help youngsters define unfamiliar words. Also, the anonymity afforded by on-screen books—titles invisible–is a definite plus for struggling readers. Then, along with the ability to zoom in on unfamiliar words, clickable links help make real-world connections. And, oh, yes, don’t forget their lightweight portability.

As psychologist and author Dr. Jim Taylor puts it: “We are not going to stop this train.” Indeed, e-books for kids and teens is the fastest-growing publishing segment.

But the picture is not entirely rosy for device-driven books. For instance, the effects of too much screen time is worrisome. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that kids today spend, on average, seven hours a day on entertainment media, and that “such excessive use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.”

Then there’s the sleep factor investigated recently at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. About the findings, HealthDay’s Dennis Thompson writes, “People who read before bed using an iPad or similar “e-reader” device felt less sleepy and took longer to fall asleep than when they read a regular printed book… The morning after reading an e-book, people found it harder to wake up and become fully alert than after reading a regular book — even though they got the same amount of sleep.” That, of course, applies to kids and adults, alike.

Apparently, these devices emit more blue light than natural or lamp light, and that reportedly suppresses melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. The result: at least a 10-minute delay in drifting off and less REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, so essential for healthy brain function and behaviors, especially in the young.

As lead researcher Anne-Marie Chang explains, “This light has serious consequences on our sleep and on our alertness, not only while we’re using these electronic devices but the following morning as well, even after eight hours of sleep.”

In other words, paper-bound books should not be discounted, and, thankfully, Scholastic also found that 68% of parents prefer that their 6- to 8-year-olds read print books. There is, after all, a lot to be said for the feel of a book in one’s hands—everything from folding back the binding, turning the pages, and dog-earing them, too. All contribute to the joy of reading. Plus, once read and savored, books can be shelved in a personal library, with favs lent to friends for a shared experience. Can’t do any of that with an electronic device!

And don’t forget the cuddle factor, which is pretty hard to come by with a hand-held screen and its distracting bells and whistles. Sure, such devices can help with unfamiliar words and so on—but so can the adult sitting right there beside a child. As Taylor notes, “Technology is a beautiful box, but it is still a box.”

Bottom line: Barnes & Noble might be struggling, but books still have plenty of fans. Plus, nothing beats a trip to the bookstore, perusing all the many titles available, and choosing the irresistible ones. No wonder, then that the same Scholastic report also noted that:

• 80% of kids who read e-books still read books in print form.
• 58% of 9- to 17-year-olds said they’ll always want to read book printed on paper even when an e-reader is available.