by Carl Schinasi
Walk into any bookstore. Thousands of books, all neatly arranged by category–cooking, fiction, history, music, sports, computers, health–line the bookshelves.
Look around the store. Usually, a handful of patrons browse quietly among the rows of books. A few curious customers request information at the service counter. Now look into the café area. There’s the crowd. Mostly, kids who look like they’re reading a book or studying fill the place. If we look closely, we see them surreptitiously eyeing other kids who look like they’re reading a book or studying. Some old-timers, lonely in their coffee and book or magazine, seem engrossed–until we notice them peeping over their pages at all the kids scoping each other out.
Stand at the bookstore’s checkout counter. Folks buy more calendars, t-shirts, cds, greeting cards, mugs, or any of the myriad doodads bookstores stock than books.
So who’s buying those thousands of books; who’s reading them? Do I sound skeptical?
I teach at a small liberal arts college. Ordinarily, I’m not one to tell tales out of school about my colleagues, but seldom do we engage in a serious conversation about literature, particularly contemporary literature. What’s odd about this? I teach English!
The library at my college convenes a reading group each semester. The head librarian always struggles to find ten faculty and staff to participate.
My brother, a well-respected Spanish scholar, tells me he rarely reads anything unrelated to his work. He spends most days researching his arcane specialty, minor mid-nineteenth century Spanish dramatists. When I pressed him, he couldn’t immediately remember the last book he read that was not associated with school or work. Eventually, he recalled reading Catcher in the Rye “for fun”—in high school—forty years ago.
A few nights ago I dined with a former colleague, another English professor. He is a fine poet who has taught at a major urban university for the past thirty years. Our conversation turned to the place of literature in our culture today. I asked him what books he had read recently. He replied, “I’m not reading much these days. Writing poetry and the goings-on at school keep me plenty busy. I don’t know who’s writing what any more.”
So if “professional” readers aren’t reading much these days, who reads all those books lining the bookstore’s shelves? I guess people committed to Oprah’s book club, or otherwise a hardy few too stubborn to wean themselves from the printed word. Last year, upon learning his county was considering closing “one or two libraries,” the writer Michael Haskins surmised, “I am not sure people read much anymore.”
Here’s the upshot, a conjecture on my part. As a nation and as a culture, each year we read less and less—especially with the proliferation of cable television, the Internet, and video games. I’d wager that this decline in reading counts as a big reason for the recent troubles in these United States of America, even as we diversify culturally and incorporate different viewpoints into the fabric of our national consciousness.
Changing lives through literature implies the act of reading adds more than an emotional or aesthetic dimension to ratiocination. Literature changes lives because reading literally stretches our brains. Reading books throws open the brain to the larger possibilities of thinking on our own and confronting life independently. Reading, and particularly works of the imagination, enables us to process and analyze information differently, more deeply, intricately, and critically, than if we just watch and listen. The more we return to the oral tradition, the more we transform into a visual culture, and the less we read books, the more susceptible we become to the tyrannies that recently have plagued our nation.
To paraphrase John B.L. Soule, the aptly named nineteenth century journalist who first (before Horace Greeley) advised young men to go west, settle the frontier, and there find opportunity and freedom: Go read a book–everyone. The adventure holds the promise to change your life and, in the bargain, to create the new American frontiers we sorely need to revitalize and grow this faltering nation.
Carl Schinasi enjoys teaching at Miles College, a historically black college, in Birmingham, Alabama. His recent works have appeared in Ducts, Slow Trains, Southern Hum, and the essay collection, Baseball/Literature/Culture. Most summers, he can be found lolling around any baseball field anywhere.