On Books

I’m going to choose my words very carefully.  Because for as long as I can remember, I have loved words.  Words convey meaning, and I can’t help but think that a search for meaning is what the whole human experience is about.

I didn’t think about this meaning stuff when I was eight years old in the summertime, riding a bus back from downtown at my grandma’s side.  She always bought me at least two books when we would go to the bookstore downtown – one for the bus, one for the evening, and then we would go to the library to check out more books the next day.  I would hear her brag to friends on the phone that I’d finished one of the paperbacks before the bus reached home. I would feel proud.

I devoured books as a kid, and I write this so you know that I am biased.  I am a reader, and I’ve been a reader ever since I was a kid.  I got more Personal Pan Pizzas than any other kid in school when we did the Book It program.  My best friend and I created a “library” that lined the shelves in her bedroom, inventing policies for the other kids in the neighborhood to borrow our paperbacks.  Books got me through long car rides, angsty middle-school friendships, Friday nights when I wasn’t invited to high school parties, and an extended illness that had me out of school for months.  When I was faced with reading that didn’t thrill me – Shakespeare in high school, Plato in college, engineering manuals at my summer job – the habit of reading sustained me and carried my focus through the boring stuff.  To this day, I feel less than whole when I’m not in the midst of a book or three.

Of course, there are more media options now.  Sometimes I’m listening to a novel while I’m running trails in the woods.  Sometimes I’ll highlight sections of nonfiction with a finger-tap to the iPad screen.  But what counts is the story.  Books allow me to live in the midst of more than one story – which somehow makes my own personal story just a little more inhabitable.

And so, I flinch whenever I hear of a library closing.  These days, my flinches are practically nervous tics.  In public education, budget axings pit libraries, arts programs, and nurses in competition for the distinction of first cut, with fatalities of the remaining programs soon after. In private schools, where budget woes are less pressing (at least for the moment), books are pushed aside to make way for what is deemed as innovation.  In cities, libraries seems to exist just one headline away from closure, cutbacks, reduced hours, staff reductions – despite being the one thing that 91% of Americans can agree holds value in their communities.

After school last Wednesday, I was loading kilns and trying not to get drawn into a conversation with a few students who were working at a studio table.  They were discussing the impending elimination of their school’s library, and its transformation into something that purports to be more innovation-themed and technology-driven.  Words like “cool” and “awesome” flew across the table with glaze and splatters of wax.  As I sanded shelves, I quietly meditated on how they seemed to know more than I did about plans just recently made public.  Their conversation had the air of community buzz.

On my next trip past the table, I couldn’t help myself – I had to ask a question.  “Don’t you guys have any reservations at all about clearing out the books?”

After the is-she-really-going-there pause, one bright, accomplished junior replied, “Seriously, Ms. P?  No reservations whatsoever.  The only thing I use those books for…” He paused.  “I’m not on the record, right?”  He knows I blog, and has been quoted before.  I smiled.  “I like to stuff a book in another kid’s backpack so that the alarm goes off.”

The others laughed and agreed.  I leaned my forehead against a wall.

“Wait.  But you guys read, right?  I mean… you read more than SparkNotes?”

Laughter again.  “There’s not much time to read more than I have to for school,” one student remarked.  Another noted, “And sometimes I like reading that stuff!  I mean, The Great Gatsby was one of my favorites.”

I quizzed them for a few minutes, then, on what else they read.  Turns out that we have some recent fiction favorites in common – The Hunger Games, Divergent, Game of Thrones and others were on our shared lists.  These were books they had purchased and I had borrowed.  They talked about the plusses to reading on devices (lighted screens, you don’t have to fold pages, something I didn’t quite understand about what a pain it is to angle your pages while you’re reading in bed) – and about what they still like about reading physical books (less distraction, the sound of pages, the accomplishment of reaching the end).  I didn’t say much – happy to let the conversation flow as long as it was flowing away from library alarm pranks.

But then, back to impending changes to the space-formerly-known-as-a-library.  “It’s going to be awesome, Ms. P.  Like… outlets hanging from the ceilings, and iPad carts, and a 3D printer.”  I nodded, thoughtfully.  “We won’t miss the books.”

In a book I’ve never read – The Leopard, by the Italian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa – a prince proclaims, “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è bisogna che tutto cambi” – “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”  Technology has changed education drastically in the decade since I started teaching, and I have rolled along with most of it – adapting, progressing, even leading the charge at times.  I’ve bought in.  I’m drafting this in Google Docs, and a trusted friend might add notes and comments to the same screen as I’m typing.  But lately, I’ve been hitting some psychological walls with the rapid pace of this change – and my latest wall is made of books.

My students might not see value in checking books out of a library to read.  But they also don’t see much value in practicing with two pounds of clay before they try ten.  Or in trying to read Shakespeare before SparkNotes resolves their confusion.  Or in speed limits.  They are teenagers; they are hard-wired to be cursory and impulsive.  Having Google in their pockets seems to sometimes reinforce such an approach.

I’ve always seen part of my job as an arts teacher to remind them to slow down, to consider consequences, story, and implications.  In a studio, we consider all of that meaning stuff – sometimes before we create, often as we are creating, and always after.  Replace “create” with “read,” and books lead us to the same considerations.  If my students don’t see value in their studio work, my passion and advocacy for my subject matter doesn’t change – but it’s a surefire sign that I need to re-evaluate my approach to teaching it.  And if students don’t see value in a library or books, I don’t see this an indicator that the books should be boxed and set aside to make room for more technology – but rather a warning sign that students are not pulling depth or substance from reading.

Last time I checked, such depth and substance trumped the pocket browser.

Maybe the library of the future looks less like stacks and more like Seth Godin’s version.  I’m with my students – it does sound “awesome.”  But in order “to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together,” I hold that you have to have some deep content knowledge from which to work.  Ever work with a co-worker whose knowledge was shallow and cursory?  Ever coordinate and invent alongside someone who relies on Google for every answer?  I have.  It’s annoying, and any work that might happen feels equally shallow and cursory.  I gravitate towards a different sort of collaborator – a more substantial and passionate one.

Depth doesn’t come from earning Godin’s “data shark” badge.  Substance starts in curiosity, roots in understanding, takes form in exploration, and demonstrates itself in product and articulation.  At least three-quarters of those steps are supported by the habit of reading – or at least by an inclusive approach that supports deep reading alongside the technologies of the moment.

There’s another issue at play here, and it has something to do with class.  Public school systems and cities are closing libraries because they can’t afford them.  Some of the reasons why libraries remain so  necessary to communities are related to things that are hard to talk about when they aren’t in your front yard – homelessness, poverty, economic inequality, fair access to resources in the midst of a lousy economy.  When you’re homeless, or barely making rent, the extra fifty bucks a month for internet access – or to pick up copies of books your kids would enjoy reading – may be impossible.  According to Molly Raphael, past president of the ALA, “Public libraries are also serving as a lifeline for people trying to adapt to challenging economic circumstances, providing technology training and online resources for employment, access to government resources, continuing education, retooling for new careers and starting a small business.”  If elite schools dismiss books, how do they ensure that their students – future citizens and community leaders – don’t dismiss the value libraries hold in more economically diverse communities?

But I told you – I’m biased, and in more ways than one.  My grandma taught me to love books.  Books taught me to seek meaning. The problem is that I’m struggling both with losing the books – and with the bigger meaning behind the gesture.

(Of course – even Godin is mired in the contradictions.)

71 thoughts on “On Books

  1. I enjoyed your post and it made me nostalgic. I was an avid reader as a child, with limited means and practically lived at the library. When I was old enough to work, it was at the library. When I went to university and was forced to read great volumes of stuff that was mandatory but of little interest, it scarred me. I have found it hard to read for pleasure ever since then. I also find it more difficult to find stuff that I actually enjoy. It was easier when I worked at the library; the high circulating material was at my fingertips and readily accessible. I find separating the wheat from the chaff very frustrating. That said, I have had a run of good luck lately with the help of the library.

  2. Public education uses books like teaching tools, creating a predisposition in young people about reading; today, kids think reading is boring, and serious literature isn’t appreciated anymore. In our young people, we need to encourage a mindset that sees the intrinsic value worth of education–extending beyond the classroom. We need to approach reading in schools less formally; it seems like more kids read for fun when they’re younger, and as the curriculum becomes more rigid, any initiative (to open a book) is beat out. To wrap this up, I think it’s sad when a class of kids groan about having to read, and I’m left wondering where we’ll be, culturally, in 20-30 years down the road.

  3. wonderful post. it really offers a lot of food for thought. technology has made it too easy for the young generation to brush aside books. i cant stand reading a book on a device. i still prefer the ability of sitting down with a good physical book. like you i love the act of turning the pages and getting to the end with some accomplishment. if it wasnt book i would not have learned about my daughters autism like i have. i do find it harder to read nowadays with having a daughter but when i do it still feels great to do it. In highschool reading was always encouraged because of it allows your mind to grow without noticing. up here in canada we are losing libraries also and its a sad sight to see really.

  4. I’m a teenager and this post just made me sad. I don’t read that often with school work bogging me down, but I love to read and I almost indefinitely prefer a physical book over an electronic copy. It’s sad trying to think of a school without a library, or a world without physical copies of books.

  5. “Depth doesn’t come from earning Godin’s “data shark” badge. Substance starts in curiosity, roots in understanding, takes form in exploration, and demonstrates itself in product and articulation. At least three-quarters of those steps are supported by the habit of reading – or at least by an inclusive approach that supports deep reading alongside the technologies of the moment.” I totally agree with that, this is a good reply to those who think that reading doesn’t matter anymore and the only thing that matters is innovation and thinking creatively. Where I live, libraries are closed on weekends and during the weekdays they are open upto 8 pm max 😦

  6. “Words convey meaning, and I can’t help but think that a search for meaning is what the whole human experience is about.” <<< perfectly said! I couldn't agree more. 🙂

  7. On my blog, I’ve been debating e-book versus physical book while discussing Stephen King’s decision to not offer an e-book for Joyland. But it’s a whole different consideration if it’s not just bookstores that are ailing. It would be a shame for libraries to disappear – the one place where students in schools, families, and the occasional lone person can just be surrounded by words of all sorts. Now that’s a tragedy. I do think that holding that library in one device in your hands doesn’t quite match the same feeling of being surrounded floor to ceiling by books. Definitely giving me more food for thought!

  8. I love to read and we are in our local Library on average 3 to 4 times a week. I do also have an eReader that I love with a passion. But it is sad to see and hear about libraries closing because I grew up reading all the time. I was not a good reader until I was in high school and didn’t like to read what the schools made me read but I still had my favs. I have my kids read all the time and I am teaching them that reading is not something to hate but something to enjoy. It will take outside of this life and put you in a new one for a little while. You can go any where in the world inside a book. I would be so lost if my library closed its doors. I am even going to start volunteering at our library this summer and helping with the programs that they support for kids in the summer.

  9. There were few books in my house as a child. My parents were not great readers but I became one. My life spent as a teacher took far too much of my time but, in my retirement, I’m finding more time to enjoy reading again.
    It would be pushing it to say I share your degree of passion but long live books. As I write, I have a stack on the shelf still to read but my wife has just gone out to the local library (in the pouring rain) because she has just finished her book.

  10. I loved this. When I was a kid, I lived at the library. If my parent’s had tried to buy enough books to keep up with my reading habit, I’m sure it would have sent them into bankruptcy. Your post brings to mind a quote that I came across the other day, “Anyway — because we are readers, we don’t have to wait for some communications executive to decide what we should think about next — and how we should think about it. We can fill our heads with anything from aardvarks to zucchinis — at any time of night or day.”
    ― Kurt Vonnegut

  11. I really enjoyed this mainly because I love reading, as well. That is pretty much why I joined here because as an ‘OfficialTeenager’ I love reading a story, it takes you to places and you get that special moment where you relate to the character or writer and its magical because you can be anyone and your absorbed into this magical world, which makes you want to change reality a bit so it seems like that magical world and thank you for reminding me how important that is because as a 13 year old I forget. I am happy that I could relate to your love for books and also happy because you reminded me how inspiring they really are. Thanks.

  12. I mourn the decline of books the way my father mourned the decine of radio as the pre-eminent broadcast medium. Perhaps technology will save books and inject new life into this fading (sadly) medium.

  13. I have always loved reading as long as I can remember. But it wasn’t until we moved to a small town in Missouri how much I missed big city libraries. Sadly my two kids do not like to read, but I love reading.

  14. I’m a university librarian. With textbooks becoming “integrated” with technology and ebooks being available even when the library is closed, a print book can truly be a hard sell. They are also a refuge for the technology-hating [usually but not always] older student who doesn’t understand that everything techo that supplies information doesn’t work like Google! I miss roaming the 11 stories of stacks at my Big 10 University, but to my students convenience is the name of the game.

    That all said, I am a huge public library user and am blessed to live in a state with regional libraries and decent support for public libraries. Even in my tiny town our library can get me about anything and with no fees.

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