Friday, February 02, 2007

The State of My "Strange and Unpleasant" Industry

My friend and fellow editor Drew sent me this librarian's assessment of the state of reading among young people.

"I became a school librarian because I loved books and wanted to bring the joy of reading to young people. . . . Silly me. Young people no longer read for pleasure, and libraries are no longer places to discover great works of literature and biography and history. We librarians now exist solely to help bored students maximize their database searches, so they can complete papers and assignments in minimal time. When students do check out a book on, say, Jane Austen or Thomas Jefferson, they don’t actually read it; they check it back in the next day, having copied down what they need to cite the book as a 'source.' My fellow librarians and I still try to 'entice young minds and bring them to the reading table,' but to no avail. Most teenagers regard reading a book as some strange and unpleasant ritual from the distant past. I recently tried to coax one senior into reading Dickens’ Bleak House, promising that if she read just one page, she wouldn’t be able put it down. She took one look at the book, coolly assessing its hundreds of pages, and said, 'I think I’ll watch the DVD.'"
--Thomas Washington, "Washington Post," cited in "The Week," February 2, 2007, p. 14

If you're one of those weirdos who still reads, why do you do it?

If you've dismissed reading as "strange and unpleasant," convince me why I should give up on books.

10 comments:

Al Hsu said...

Well, if book publishing is a strange and unpleasant industry, how much worse is the Christian knick-knack industry? Here's a recent actual news brief regarding a new gift company at a Christian retail trade show going on this week:

Fishermen Inc. of Los Angeles launches its "I Am" line at CBA ADVANCE of collectible figurines depicting Jesus in nine different modern-day likenesses. I Am Freedom shows a jean-clad Jesus aboard a chopper, complete with long-raked handlebars. I Am Victory has Jesus mid-strike in a soccer uniform. I Am Peace shows Jesus in camouflage military fatigues, holding a dove in His outstretched hand. I Am Hope portrays Jesus in shabby clothing, holding a sign, "Will Work 4 Food." The hard-plastic figurines are individually hand painted and mounted on a plastic base. Two sizes available ($25 or $35). To see these and more, visit booth 225.

Pete Juvinall said...

I think it's a generational thing. The onslaught of on-demand, immediate information has turned the attention of students into aggregating information. They're choosers rather than learners.

My guess is that reading is seen as just another way to aggregate information.

The other sad thing is that most of the students I've seen around my parts couldn't critically think their way out of a paper bag. The one class at our school that emphasized critical thinking was dropped from the ciriculum.

I ended up making a resolution for the new year to read more because I just physically feel better after I spend an evening reading than sitting on a computer or watching TV.

Jenn said...

Pete--I'll bet your computer feels better when you're not sitting on it, too.

Here's my Why-I-Don't-Read-Enough-But-Still-Believe-in-It essay:

Even if you're not a great critical thinker, if you read a book, you still have to think, because the words have to do for you what pictures and soundtrack do in other media. This makes reading more work, but it also makes it more rewarding--and I feel that I can get more "into" a story if I read it (i.e. put in the work) than if I watch it. I love it when I feel like I've become one of the characters and have the sort of melancholy of putting the book down. I also love reading other people's ideas about things.

But the other-people's-ideas thing is why I don't read books more often; if I can read a blog and jot off something witty or pithy, it's fun and rather addictive, and I don't get to the library as often and then have fewer books I'm motivated to read and then I just keep blogging and then I don't go to the library . . . You get the point.

Charity Singleton said...

Not only do I love to read lots of books and visit the library regularly, I am working hard to make readers out of all my nieces and nephews. Most of the gifts they have received from me for birthdays and Christmas are books. Some of them are readers who spend hours curled up on the sofa with a book. Others smile and say a polite "thank you." Even if they don't love books, I hope they will value them. If nothing else, because they were a gift from their "Aunt Char."

If people around you are reading, it doesn't seem to "strange and unpleasant." I think the best way to encourage children to read is to read in front of them.

Stacey said...

Never fear. Those book geeks still exist today. I still read aloud to my 7th & 8th graders and, if we found the right book, they would beg for me to read more. I'd have about a quarter of my students who delighted in giving me book recommendations and I even had an elective where kids did nothing but read for 45 minutes and it was rare that I had to get after people for screwing around.

There still is nothing better than lighting the fire of imagination with some great characters or a magical sentence. I'm afraid the librarian either needs a breath of fresh inspiration or just had a really bad day.

Mr Steve said...

Part of the perceived decrease in student reading may be in the plethora of visual information sources available. However, I also believe that there are many teachers out there that have turned reading into a chore. A means to an end. Read the book so I can pass the test so I can pass the class and get credit for my work. There is no personal connection between the student and the art. Also, out of a love for literature many teachers will become overly excited about what a call "the mechanism" rather than the product. I love a good book. I appreciate the symbolism, the foreshadowing, the complex use of metaphor. If I make this my focus and not the story and rich characters I have done a great disservice to the art and the artist. When enjoying a new video game for example - I don't regale people with examinations of the uses of chiaroscuro, or bring up lines of code to show how artfully scenes were composed. So why do it with a good book? It's like reverse gestalt. The parts alone are less than the assembled whole.

I have a first grader at home that has learned the difference between narrative and informative books. She loves to read both types. I think too often teachers can turn a narrative -something to be enjoyed - into an informative text - something we need to pull a predetermined meaning from. There's a great series of kid's books - The Magic Treehouse - that has actually comibined the two types. For each narrative - an adventure where two children are taken to some far of place - there is a resource book. Kids can read a fun narrative about Jack and Annie and their encounter with pirates. Then an interested reader can also find a grade-level appropriate resource book to tell them the facts about pirates. We love these books at our house. What a great way to enjoy a fun story and learn some useful information at the same time.

Kids get still get excited about good books. J.K. Rowling has done more to improve student literacy than just abut any other reading initiative in recent times.
Heck, I still get excited about good kids' books. If you haven't yet read Holes by Louis Sachar - pick up a copy from your library. But by all means let kids discover reading. Let them find the books that excite them. Just don't expect them to love the same stories you did.

Damon Barnum said...

Why do I feel pressured to actually write a book sized post about reading? Anyway I didn't actually start reading for kicks until fairly late in life (seeing as I'm almost 29, late in life is about 20 or 21). Since then I have immersed myself in in a little bit of sci-fi, a little biography, a lot of theology, a lot of ministry, and whole lot of fantasy. Fantast has so far been my favorite because I have an imagination that loves to run wild. I guess it's just a little escape from what is going on around me. It's nice to go to a place where even though there are hard time everything comes together in the end. But who really knows something just awakened in me when i was that age that gave me a great desire to read.

Damon said...

I've had JK Rowling and Harry Potter have been turning the tide of this "kids don't read crisis." But recently with the announcement of the 7th and final Harry Potter book being released this summer Bloomsberry will be bracing for a large hit in revenue because only Harry is really selling. Has anyone else heard this?

Damon said...

Ok, so I as thinking about this in the shower this morning and had this question...If good book weren't made into terrible Hollywood renditions, would kids read more? Any thoughts?

David A. Zimmerman said...

Damon--good to hear from you! I think Mr. Steve is right that the greatest hindrance to selling reading as a practice is often the reader. The idea of reading still has enough of an imprint on the culture that a good story, or a good idea, ought to be able to sell itself. The onus is on the author and the bookseller to be able to tell the story compellingly in the amount of time a potential reader might entertain the notion of reading. Jim Gaffigan has a bit in his standup routine about books becoming movie: "There's always some snob who says 'The book was better.' I tell them, 'Oh yeah? You know what I enjoyed about the movie? Not having to read." A good book takes more than two hours, but it has less than fifteen seconds to convince somebody that it's worth such a substantial time investment.