Morning sun casts chiaroscuro across the backyard patio. And the palm fronds there are gently illuminated, a look that cannot last. There is little sound, as if the morning were holding its breath. Then one bird sings a line of pretty chirps. A drier throat answers.
I suppose every morning holds promise like this – perhaps time to read – before the day moves into the usual commute, the hours of work. Elsewhere, people from the Middle East continue to pour into Germany. Other news from that same country just in: “Despite a sluggish global economy and political turmoil, official attendance for the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair rose modestly over 2014.” That’s a good sign, one suggesting people still cherish books, though the students in my school seem to prefer their mobile devices. Those sitting in the student center with an ever-present phone or computer on hand could be reading entire books through one app or another, but I suspect they are not.
When I was a younger librarian, working for the Seattle Public Library, I enjoyed putting up the wonderful READ posters produced by the American Library Association. Each one showcased an impressive portrait of one celebrity or another: Oprah, Bette Midler, Paul Newman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Miss Piggy, Steve Martin, Maya Angelou, David Bowie, and others. It appears these posters are still being created, but I haven’t seen one in years. I no longer work in a public library, though I suspect there’s more to it than that. Reading entire books just isn’t cool anymore.
I remember parents bringing their children to the library to check out impressive stacks of kids’ books. I’m assuming some families still do this. I remember enthusiastic children asking where they could find another book like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle or The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. More recently, I have chatted with at least one high school English teacher willing to admit she has had students in her class who have never finished a book.
These days, I help community college students find the books they need to complete their assignments. They only seem to ask for them if their instructor has specified a book is necessary for full credit. As they stand before the reference desk, they often indicate they are in a hurry. Many assume I can produce exactly the book they need. It is the rare student who applies the critical thinking skills necessary to select their own sources for the paper they are about to write. And I don’t generally notice eager readers browsing the stacks to satisfy their own curiosity. I have wondered, on more than one occasion, how many of them actually read – with comprehension – one entire book during a given semester.
I was expected to read a hefty pile of books each quarter (in high school and in college). I used take exams I would have failed if I had not, indeed, read these books. Sure there were CliffNotes. But my professors were no dummies. They often promised tests – requiring Blue Book essays – that could not have been passed with the help of summaries. Today these exams would almost be viewed as cruel and unusual.
You might sneer and remind me that I am working in a community college. But I have honestly wondered what I would observe if I worked in a university library. Would I find enthusiastic readers browsing the New Books shelves as my generation once did? Would I talk to students hot on the trail of the latest important work about a particular subject? I suspect modern university students expect to find what they need online—the latest everything. Indeed, it seems like younger generations have decided they don’t need to learn how to analyze – stay with, focus on – lengthier tomes. Instead, they cast their nets across the waves of cyberspace and calmly decide the information they retrieve will suffice.
Speaking of my generation—I fall at the tail end of the Boomers—we still talk books. We run book groups, participate in Goodreads, and share our favorites during meaningful talks. While Boomers still hold some sway over some things, I’ve been informed we are out. Maybe that’s how it should be. As a parting shot, however, I challenge today’s librarians, reading teachers, and English instructors to come up with a new READ campaign, one that encourages lengthy (hours of reading) in-depth analysis – downright meditation – on the world’s great books. Sure, today’s young brains are being trained to use technology, and they often demonstrate breathtaking sparks of intelligence as they display what they can do. Imagine the promise of mental ability intentionally geared to move the mouse with ease AND read deeply.