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Wednesday, 02 January 2008 00:00

What? Me read?

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Letters to My Son on the Love of Books by Roberto Coltroneo. Ecco Press, 1998. 151 pages.

In the Dec. 24 issue of The New Yorker, Caleb Crain addresses the decline of literacy and the increasing disinterest in reading in “Twilight of the Books: what will life be like if people stop reading?” Despite the title, Crain doesn’t speculate much about the future of reading, though he does offer the comment that if we continue our swing away from printed knowledge toward audiovisual imagery — television, movies, YouTube — ”the nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change.”

That conversation will be less cerebral and more emotional, less driven by critical thinking and more by a talk-show approach to issues. Americans disturbed this election year about the plunging levels of political discourse might do well to include literacy as one of the causes for this descent.

 

Crain spends a considerable portion of his article examining statistics that show reading among Americans of all age groups and income brackets on the decline, figures that come as no surprise to those who keep up with this issue. When Crain turns his attention to comparative studies of reading in the Netherlands, however, similar statistics will come as a cold shock to those Americans who regard the Dutch as an intellectually sophisticated and highly literate people. In 1955, Crain tells us, the Dutch spent some 21 percent of their free time reading; by 1995, that figure had dropped to 9 percent.

Crain holds out little hope that programs like No Child Left Behind will bolster reading levels or even generate more of an interest in literature. Researchers once found that students who spent a good deal of time on the Internet tended to increase their scores on reading tests, but with the increasing use of videos and YouTube spots the Internet will soon reflect a growing divide between those who prefer print — a small minority — to those who prefer the audiovisual.

Yet Crain does not anticipate the disappearance of literacy. One possible scenario which he foresees is this shrinking readership evolving into the sort of literary culture found in nineteenth century England, where only a relative few read poetry, literature, and history. Perhaps, he predicts tenuously, reading will even become a sort of “arcane” activity, much like stamp collecting or hiking, something indulged in by lovers of the printed word but which has little effect on society as a whole.

Probably any hope for keeping our political and cultural dialogue founded on the written word will come not from institutions and programs but from individuals — in this case, people who are passionate about reading and who want to share that fire with others. Many schools — public and private, primary and secondary — boast teachers who carry this fire into the classroom, who bring books and poetry to their students like couriers of culture, who read aloud to their students from books and essays that they themselves love. Parents and grandparents who read aloud to their children know the delight they offer these youngsters will come back to them tenfold. The three-year-old who “reads” aloud Where The Wild Things Are is well on his way toward a lifelong attachment to the written word.

Books exist which can help nonreaders ease their way into print. In A Poem A Day, Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery offer a short daily poem followed by some notes on the poet or on the poem’s history. Here is a sample, a verse by Christopher Logue, that demonstrates both the length and the inspiration behind these choices:

Come To The Edge

Come to the edge.

We might fall.

Come to the edge.

It’s too high!

COME TO THE EDGE!

And they came,

And he pushed,

And they flew.

Other books may spark family readings and discussions. William Bennett’s companion to The Book of Virtues — The Moral Compass: Stories for a Life’s Journey — contains many fascinating tales unfamiliar to modern readers, tales that may be read aloud in 10 minutes or less. Stephen R. Covey’s Everyday Greatness: Inspiration for a Meaningful Life contains scores of stories and quotations from Reader’s Digest. Again these pieces may be read aloud in under 10 minutes, and Covey has even provided questions for discussion at the end of each section. The popular Chicken Soup for the Soul series also lends itself to shared readings.

In a year in which a French scholar wrote a book telling us how to pretend that we’re well-read, in a book market in which Anthony Burgess’s remark “The possession of a book becomes a substitute for reading it,” may well be true, and in an age when, as Mark Twain once remarked, a classic is “a book which people praise and don’t read,” real readers are important to the survival of literate discussion. Real readers — people who do read classics, who both own and read their books, who don’t need a scholar manqué to tell them how to fake their knowledge of books — can inspire in others the desire to explore the vast territory of the written word.

In Letters to My Son on the Love of Books, Italian writer Roberto Coltroneo leads his young son on a delightful journey through a variety of literary classics ranging from Treasure Island to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. At the end of the chapter, Coltroneo writes:

In the end, Francesco, stories are not very different from one another, only a little different, like the one about your ladybug, or the story of this book, which will change each time you read it — perhaps only slightly — because you will always find something new in it. Books are like that, Francesco, they have no need of the world, it is the world that has need of them.

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