Reading by the Book

“I’ll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book”
Jimmy Durante

Reading by the Book

Library of Alençon

There is in Durante’s song an attitude towards reading that reflects the attitude of many today, especially those who are in the process of receiving an education. The song is from the 1940’s, as near as I can tell, which suggests that unfriendly attitudes towards books and reading is not a new thing. Mark Twain in his definition of a classic (“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”) captured a similar sentiment.

A book published last year, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard takes this idea a step further by instructing us how to sound knowledgeable about books we have not only not read but have no real desire to read, while also recognizing that there is an image that attaches to a well read person that many who are not well read would like to project. Andre Agassi sold tennis shoes by telling us, “image is everything”, though he probably did not say it first. And he cultivated the image of a champion long before he became successful at actually winning major tournaments. So why is it that so many people do not want to read but want the circles in which they move to think they do?

Inscription regarding Tiberius Claudius Babillus of Rome (d. 56 CE) which confirms that the Library of Alexandria must have existed in some form in the first century AD.”Forschungen in Ephesos”, Vol. III, Vienna 1923, p.128.

This inscription from the first century makes a reference to the ancient Library at Alexandria. It was destroyed on three separate occasions and on all but the last occasion rebuilt. It is said to be the first library that aspired to assemble a serious collection of books and actively sought out books from all parts of the then known world. To this day most communities in America recognize the importance of having a town library, though the library is often one of the first institutions to lose funding when the economy becomes troublesome.

I live a few miles from one of the oldest libraries in the country, The Boston Public Library. It is an impressive place to visit. It is not just a collection of books, but of sculpture and painting as well. There is a collection of murals by John Singer Sargent that have recently been restored among other exhibits in the library that attest to its value as more than a book depository. The New York City Public Library has a cottage industry of sorts accumulating lists of facts and information contained in its collection and publishing them in books under their imprimatur.

If the culture seems to care so little for books why does it go to such lengths to accumulate them and make them available to people, especially if people do not want to read them? Is it just so people can sound credible when they claim to have read a book they have never owned? I think that in spite of what some people say, including many students who do not seem to be personally interested in books, there is a belief that books are important to a culture and that someone should read them. Samuel Goldwyn once said “I read part of it all the way through.” And the parts that he read were turned into some impressive films. I think perhaps this attitude pervades aspects of the culture, that for many it is enough to have read a page or two to get the flavor of a book, they are just not hungry enough for the complete meal.

Part of the blame for this is probably public education that requires everyone to get an education whether they want it or not. Not everyone aspires to be literate, though I believe in the mission of the public schools that encourages everyone to be literate and that the process converts many. But if public schools too rigorously maintain a high academic standard those without academic aspirations will be lost. But to fail to maintain a standard trivializes the whole enterprise. A middle ground of sorts needs to be found that preserves a meaningful standard while providing a path through the process for those that are not interested in the standard. Ideally those that lack interest would be won over, but I am not sure that is possible to win over everyone. It seems that at the heart of the public schools is this compromise between standards and student interest and how far the compromise can go before the diplomas the nation’s schools award lose their value.

There was a discussion this week in a social network for English teachers English Companion. The name of the discussion was “The Difference Between Good Literature and Books We Like to Read.” I cannot link to the actual discussion because you have to be a member to gain access, but do feel free to join and check it out. The gist of the discussion focused on what books should form the curriculum and whether there is a place in the curriculum for the books students like. I do not think students need a whole lot of instruction on the books they already like and in my experience it is as much the analysis of a text that students resist as the books themselves and if I were to introduce more current and popular fiction I would probably be criticized for analyzing it to death, which I am sure I would do because as an English teacher I love analyzing texts to death.

The cover art of the novel The Name of the Rose.

A book about books that I thoroughly loved when it came out about ten or so years ago was The Name of the Rose. It combined a love of books, with a medieval setting and a good detective story. Who could ask for more? Even the detective in the story evoked Sherlock Holmes, one of my favorite detectives. But what I thoroughly enjoyed was the labyrinthine library with its vast collection of books, including one by Aristotle that has since disappeared from the face of the earth. There is also a sentiment on the part of certain characters in the story that books are dangerous things and cannot be entrusted to everyone. I think sometimes that one of the unintended consequences of public education has been that by making books available to all the hunger for books has been quenched. There is something subversive that is appealing to many about doing something that has been forbidden or deemed unhealthy by those in authority.

I think reading is important. All reading. I think more information is gotten from reading an article in the newspaper than is gotten from watching a summary on the nightly news or reading the blurbs on Netscape or MSN when we open our web browsers. I think there is also a broader spectrum of coverage in a newspaper. The paper does not have to be read off sheets of newsprint, it can be read online (I just got an iPod Touch that lets me read books and newspapers and even instruction manuals online wherever I go). It is not the venue in which the reading is done but the reading itself.

I want to introduce students to the wonders of great literature as was done for me, but I also understand that like solving the Riemann hypothesis, it is only those who already posses an interest, or are susceptible to the temptation to cultivate an interest that are going to be won over. As an English teacher I am not only passing the wonders of the language on to the next generation of English teachers but also to the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and carpenters whose interests lie in different directions. I do not remember much of my high school biology, but I imagine I would remember significantly more if I had gone on to become a Biologist instead of an English teacher.

84 Charing Cross RoadBrooks Films and Columbia Pictures

Many find this movie overly chatty because all that really takes place in the film are conversations, through the mails, about books. The hunt for books, the nature of books, whole works verses abridgements and the like. But anyone who appreciates a passion for books will find that passion comes through the dialogue in this film. I also like the film because like the book collector in the film, Helene Hanff, I am captivated by British Literature. As a result I could identify personally with most of the authors that are mentioned.

It is this passion that cannot be taught. I can share the passion I have and that passion might be a bit contagious, but for someone who has never experienced this passion for the written word it may not resonate very much. I think most of my students have books that have deeply moved them and they will probably go on to read books that resemble the books they have enjoyed. I am not certain there is a decline in the number of people, as a percentage of the population, who read classic literature or the kinds of modern books that will one day be classic literature. I imagine that as a percentage of the population those moved by language are probably comparable to those moved by quantum physics or evolutionary biology. But whatever the numbers actually reveal there will be some that got so excited the day they read a book that they rushed out and read another and others for whom it will be a fond memory of something they did once upon a time.

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9 thoughts on “Reading by the Book

  1. I found the idea of public libraries intriguing. I never really thought about the fact that we put so much time and effort to place all those books in an easily accessible place, but half the time people don’t even want to read them. I volunteered at the public library when i was younger, and I would see books that had 10 year spans between getting taken out. So as I was reading this, I thought to myself “why would we waste all this funding on a place where half its books are barely used?” And then it hit me. Even if a book is only taken out one time, maybe that one time it helped someone with a project, or it influenced someones life, or it introduced someone to a new author? I believe that literature is our most impressive, and plentiful source of human culture. This being said, I think that our public libraries should be completely funded, and maintained.

  2. I feel it is so important to keep our libraries alive and help fund them. We dont realize it but there is so much information out there that has gone untouched. Libraries are compacted with books loaded with precious information and theories from the greatest minds from all centuries. It is true that more and more each day our generation refers to the internet to discover their informatin. Honestly with the click of a button we have the world at our hands. But i feel that libraries and the books within them give us a different experience. It allows us to wander and really grasp the importance of books. I dont know about others but i like researching in books rather then the internet. I feel we are able to learn so much more from reading and absorbing stories from books.
    If you take a look at the shelves in a library there is more than a lifetimes worth of reading. One may think “what is the point of having all these books? No one will ever read them all.” As true as that may be each book holds a story, just like each person. One person may enter a library in search of steroids in sports, while another enters searching marine biology. Each book has a purpose and has an effect on someones life. The book may not be the most requested but even if it is checked out just once it has helped. Libraries are a source if our information and allow our minds to expand. We must save them and continue to fund.

  3. The truth is, our culture does not care very much about books, nor does it go to the lengths that it should to accumulate them and make them widely available. The best example is, obviously, the Wareham Free Library. I am not aware of the details of the city budget cuts, but it seems to me that the library got it pretty bad. Even now, when it is closed half the time, it’s still struggling to stay open. Recently, it lost its certification, meaning that people can no longer go online, order books from other libraries, and pick them up in Wareham. Instead of having twenty or so libraries worth of books to choose from, the people in Wareham only get one. I found this out while trying to order a Thelonious Monk concert DVD online (not a book, but still educational!). In the past I have used this system to order books that were not available at the Wareham Free Library. Now, that is impossible. The children of Wareham have lost a lifetime’s worth of knowledge when the library lost its certification, all because the city couldn’t find the money. Again, I don’t know the specifics of the cuts, but it seems to me that the library should be considered more important that it is today.

  4. I completely feel that people must continue to fund libraries. I feel that they are a necessary resource in society despite all the new technology that exists today. It is true that people can easily search the internet and virtually find any desired information but there is something special in going to a library. I know some people including myself who would much rather take a trip to the library than find research at a computer screen. I find security in getting information through books. I feel that they are much more reliable and accurate than information online.
    Even if some books are rarely taken out or used that does not mean that they are insignificant. They may not be useful to one person but at some point someone got something beneficial out of them or maybe just pure enjoyment.
    Lastly I also believe that even with all the new forms of entertainment there is still a large amount who look to reading for pleasure in their pastime. It would be a shame if libraries were made unavailable and people were incapable of taking out however many books they pleased for their free time. I feel that everyone must work to help save the libraries.

  5. No one should ever say that the all of the blank edges of the world are filled in. Billions of universes exist sitting on dusty shelves in between the cover and final page of any book.
    I think of myself as an explorer. Constantly traversing through the epic battles, mysterious landscapes and becoming completely new people.
    I’ve fallen for Mr. Darcy, Traveled down river with Huck Finn. I’ve cast magic spells and defeated thousands or Orcs. They joy found in reading a book is indescribable and it is worth more than any I-pod or $200 pair of sneakers.
    That is why its important to read. You gain so much with every page. The thought of loosing a library is dreadful. If people care less and less we may see the world heading in the direction of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

  6. I can honestly say that this essay stirs up great emotion inside of me. Personally, I love to read any type of material I can get my hands on. In fact, lately, with my tremendous workload in school, I have not had the time to simply read for pleasure, and it deeply upsets me. With this said, I find it irritating that so many students today find reading to be a chore. I think that everyone should read, for reading enlightens you. Nothing bad will ever come of reading a book. Furthermore, I think that funding public libraries should be an utmost priority for any town. It bothers me when there are cuts in the town budget, and one of the first things limited is the Wareham Free Library’s hours of operation. I feel that not nearly enough people are appreciative of all that simple words on a page have to offer. Most truthfully, I hope that society is not taking a downturn for the worst, as the issue of students not wanting to read only seems to be increasing.

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