Amazon Rapids and the Dumbing-Down of Reading

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

amazon, rapids, ebook, app, readingAt first I thought it was a “Saturday Night Live” parody about ebooks for kids. We’re so addicted to info-snacking, seemingly less able to (and interested in) focus on long-form reading, so let’s create a new platform that helps foster even shorter attention spans for our kids.

Amazon Rapids is nothing more than a series of text messages disguised as a new way of encouraging kids to read. Go ahead. Download the app, read the sample content and tell me whether you think it’s worth $2.99 a month to expose kids to these “short stories.” I wouldn’t recommend Rapids to kids even if it were offered for free.

Anyone who knows me would agree that I’m an unabashed digital enthusiast. Nobody wants technology to help make reading more accessible and interesting than I do. I’ve given countless presentations about how today’s ebooks are nothing more than “print under glass,” and how we spend so much time reading “dumb content on smart devices.”

With Rapids, Amazon now enables kids to read even dumber content on their smart devices. I really wish it were nothing more than an “SNL” skit, but I think Amazon is serious about this one.

This article first appeared on Joe Wikert’s Digital Content Strategies.

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3 thoughts on “Amazon Rapids and the Dumbing-Down of Reading

  1. Michael W. Perry

    “Dumb down” is an gross understatement. Take any classic children’s tale that’s been loved by kids for generations and reduce it to a Rapids-like format. The result is a horror. Interesting stories can’t be squeezed into a restricted, “chat-style” format. The result will be as shallow as a relationship built only on text messages. Asking a gifted writer accept those restrictions is like asking a world-class chef to produce a delicious meal using nothing but salt for seasoning.

    I should know. I had Rapids-like primers as a kid—those dread Alice and Jerry books. Dull and filled with inanities, it could have easily given me a life-long hatred of reading and probably did that to millions of children over its thirty-year span as an instrument of institutionalized torture. Here’s Wikipedia’s description:
    The sentences in the “Alice and Jerry” readers were short, and used repeating words to build reader’s stamina and familiarity. For instance, here is the text from the book “Skip Along”: “One, two three. Come and see. Come and see. See my umbrella. Look, Jerry. Up. // One, two three. Come and see. Come and see. See my airplane. Up, up, up. Down.”

    Makes you want to vomit, doesn’t it? It’s the literary equivalent of gruel for food. And take note that the personal conversations of kids that age are miles beyond what they’re being forced to read.

    Fortunately, my mother took me to our local library, where I found books I enjoyed reading. Nor was material written for adults a turn-off, like some today assume. Indeed, my first memory of reading as a pleasure came when I read our local paper in what much have been the second grade. For the first time, the world of adults was open to me. As a seven-year-old, I found challenging and interesting.

    Kids like a challenge. They like reading that stretches their minds and widens their horizons. They’re not deterred by complex sentences or words they don’t understand. That’s what growing up is all about. It’s what they do every day despite niggling adults who want to enfold them in a protective cocoon, lest their ‘self-esteem’ suffer. We do them a disservice when we give them reading that confines and restricts.

    I’m not even sure what Amazon calls a “built-in glossary” is a good idea. In the rest of their lives, kids rountinely encounter words whose meaning they cannot “easily look up.” They seem to cope well enough, perhaps retaining enough awareness of a word to figure out its meaning after seeing its use in context a few times. Why pamper them in this one context? That’s like going onto a playground filled with kids running about and insisting that they use crutches (paraphrasing Amazon) “to help build their running confidence.” We learn confidence by doing what’s beyond our comfort zone.

    Alas, I’m not surprised to see this coming from Amazon. While I agree with others that the company’s growing dominance of the book market isn’t healthy, I’m bothered more by the company’s inability to see that books are not merely one commodity among many. To serve its own interests, Amazon has poisoned our view of books. Money has become the measure of all things.

    Not too many years ago, people talked about the content of books. Amazon has turned much of that conversation into a fuss over their price. Once, discussions centered on what a new bestseller had to say. Now it’s about the difference between the cost of the printed version and that of the digital. That’s bad.

    Even worse, Amazon has now turned its deadening gaze on the books that children read. I think you’ll understand when I say that I’m not excited by the prospect. I had enough of Alice and Jerry as a kid.

    One additional remark. While this brief video from Sweden is not about reading, it does illustrate how children learn by exploring and learning from the consequencies. What’s true with “toot, toot” is also true with reading.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor at Inkling Books, Auburn, AL

  2. Barbara

    I disagree. This is how kids are reading, in short bytes. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. At least they’re reading and eventually, when they’re ready, they’ll read longer prose. Force feeding them literature you think they should read will not make them budge. It’ll only turn them into non-readers. Fortunately, with the world we live in now, there are options. For those who prefer longer reading materials they can, and others have shorter options.

    1. Michael W. Perry

      You must have had a different childhood than mine, Barbara. Attending grade school in the late 1950s, I was forced to read primers that could have easily killed my taste for books forever. Here’s an example from the same Alice and Jerry series that was inflicted on me:

      “Alice, Alice!” said Jerry.
      “Come here! Come here!
      I see something brown.”

      That’s dreadful to read, particular if you’re a small child who’s easily bored and wants to get out and play. No child talks like that, nor do they hear adults talking that way.

      But alas, far too much of what happened in those stories were rendered that way. Their dog, which I my loathing I remember as Spot, was apparently named Jip. That unfortunate dog couldn’t simply run. No, he had to be moved along by either Alice or Jerry calling out, “See Jip run. Run Jip, run.” Once was enough, I would think as a kid. There’s no reason to say “run” three times. Indeed, there’s no reason for Alice, Jerry, or Jip to call out what all three can see for themselves.

      Even as a six-year-old I knew how unnatural that was. But those Alice and Jerry tales, bad as they were, at least permitted some narration, however dull and repetitive. The passage above was followed by:

      Alice looked down.
      She saw something little.
      She saw something brown.
      She saw a little brown rabbit.
      “Oh, look, Jerry,” said Alice.

      Yes, I know. No first grader talks like that, but at least that’s a narrative, however dull and repetitive. As much as I hated them, I will admitted that those stories were not restricted to speech bubbles. They were stories.

      At best, the text message format of Amazon’s Rapids must discourage authors from using narrative and force its characters to cry out, describing what is happening. At worst, the Rapids format may kill narrative altogether. I couldn’t find out which, since I couldn’t find a way to see what these Rapids stories are like without downloading the app and (probably) signing up. I suspect these Rapids tales from Amazon are going to be even worse that those primers I read as a kid.

      That’s a hint that Amazon knows many parents will find these text-messaging stories unappealing. By three a child’s conversational skills are well beyond texting. Forcing them to endure stories written that way is like making a kid who has been riding a bicycle for a year to still use trainer wheels. It will discourage their interest in reading rather than encourage it. And once discouraged, they may never go on to learn to enjoy well-written stories.

      This also illustrates one trouble we’re in as writers, editors and publishers. The largest book retailer on the planet has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no understanding of books. You may recall that Jeff Bezos didn’t get into books because he loved them. He did so, he has explained, because a book is a fixed and predicatable commodity. A book from Amazon is identical to one sold at full retail by a traditional bookstore. Discount the price and you steal business from that bookstore.



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