Sunday, January 21, 2007

Gathering Dust?

Obviously, anyone who looks forward to spending time on half-dozen or more book blogs each day has a reading problem...and that's a good problem to have. We not only read 50-100 books every year, we want to know what perfect strangers are reading and what they think of the books we've read. We're so afraid to miss anything that we find ourselves drawn to any article that has the word "book" in it. We feel about our favorite writers the same way that others might feel about movie stars or singers; they are celebrities to us, be they dead or alive and no matter in what century they lived.

However, we are so obsessed with books and writing that we fail to realize just how tiny a percentage of the population that people like us are. We are the exception, not the rule. Thomas Washington, a Washington D.C. area school librarian is in the trenches and he is concerned that "the books in the library stacks are gathering dust."
When I started in this profession five years ago — I used to teach English — I presumed that librarians were mostly united in their attraction to books. But as I moved along in my library science program, I found that books weren't really our focus. Information management, database networking and research tools claimed the largest share of the curriculum.

In other words, literacy today is defined less by how English departments or a librarian might teach Wordsworth or Faulkner than by how we find our way through the digital forest of information overload.
Students are still checking out the standard research fare — the Thomas Jefferson biography, the volume of literary criticism on Jane Austen — but few read it. The library checks the books back in a day later, after the students have extracted the information vitals — usually an excerpt or two to satisfy the requirement that a certain number of works be cited in their papers.

Conventional wisdom has it that teenagers don't read because they're too busy. Only after high school, sometime midway through college, do young adults reconnect with their childhood love of reading and make books their partners for life. I don't think so anymore. The 2004 Reading at Risk report by the National Endowment for the Arts concluded that literary reading was in serious decline on all fronts, especially among the youngest adults, ages 18 to 24, whose rate of decrease was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population.

I've wondered just how today's information overload would affect those young people who are growing up never having known an age when research involved trips to local libraries in order to find books on the shelves containing the searched-for information that then had to be written down on paper for future reference. Has the internet made attention deficit disorder a bigger problem than ever before? Have we become satisfied with only skimming the surface of research because it has become so easy to get the "X for Dummies" version of any subject on earth in just five minutes of scanning Google?

I refuse to believe that the death of books is imminent. I go to my local library most Saturday mornings and I find it packed with readers of all ages. Of course, much of the floor space in my two-story library has been given over to computers and stacks of DVDs, CDs and cassette tapes. But, despite this abundance of electronic media, I see dozens of books being taken from the library every week during my few minutes there. No, real books will always be with us despite the fact that Google is trying to digitize them all. Publishers will have to adapt to the new market conditions being forced on them by others, but they will survive.


  1. Sam , welcome to the world of blogging and to the bookaholic blogring.I look forwarding to dropping in here.I leapt into the world of blogging almost a year ago and I have to agree, we feel like we're in the majority as readers when we move around each others blogs but the reality is in my working life there is nobody I talk to about books at all.It's a joy to find out what others are reading and I have picked up so mnay recommends along the way.

  2. Thanks for the kind welcome to your world. I've been reading a few bookish blogs for a while now and finally decided to join in the conversation. I agree with reading list has really lengthened since I discovered blogs like these.

  3. Research for a paper I wasn't interested in but had to write - you bet I went to the computer to find the information I needed - in and out in under 30 minutes and on to the next busy-work assignment.

    But, when reading for enjoyment (or even doing research for a project I am interested in), a computer just doesn't do it. You can't immerse yourself in a good computer. You can't smell the binding, flip through the pages, curl up in a comfy chair. I work in a bookstore, and everyday I get some moment of enjoyment just walking through the aisles.

    Browsing on computer is just eye strain. Browsing through shelves books is a treasure hunting experience.

    I don't care how digital this world gets, I will always be adding cloth and paper bound books to my shelves, not flash drives and digital files of text.

  4. I totally agree with you. There's simply no way that any kind of electronic gizmo can ever replace a real book...just no way.

    I did find myself reading whole books on my laptop when I was working in the Sahara Desert because it was really hard to carry the weight of a month's worth of reading on my back. But only the classics were available in those days...nothing new for sale at that time.

  5. The ability (and hence the desire) for easy access, quick fix information has certainly helped supplant the need for thorough research and personal thought. Whether this has seriously decreased the number of people who read books for pleasure or not, I don't know.

    I know that I find it amazing that so many of my students (I'm an English professor) have never read Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, etc. And yet my students do seem to be reading Dean Koontz, Nicholas Sparks, and Dave Pelzer.

  6. At least they're reading but what a contrast in quality between the two sets of authors you mentioned. I can't imagine how they even made it to college without having been exposed at some point to Twain, Plath and Shakespeare.

    I'm not sure that you made me feel any better...but at least they are helping to keep the bookstores open for business.

  7. I agree with the school librarian 9as a former one myself). It's all about "knowledge navigation":, "information management" and all that palaver.

    Kids don;t have time between sport, music lessons, computer games, hHOMEWORK (most of it bloody ueless) to JUST READ.

    I'd like every school, up to at least Grade 10 to abandon homework and useless assignments (which usually require nothing more than an ability to fill in a google tool bar - gawd it took me til I was 40 and I learned that in about 6 secs flat!) and jsay: Your homework is to just read one book a month AT LAST for the school year, and to learn how to ENJOY them.

    And tell parents to provide a place where this is possible, whether a bean bag, a bed, a trip to the library, or whatever.

  8. oops - typos, typos....should be AT LEAST, not AT LAST.

  9. Great points, Sally. I think that schools tend to turn more pupils into non-readers than vice versa, and that's a shame.

    I have a granddaughter in second grade who takes home one to two hours worth of homework almost every school day. I fear that she will get turned off by having so much at such an early age when all she wants to really do before going to bed is to curl up with another of the "Little House on the Prairie" books. There's, unfortunately, seldom time for her to do both in the same evening.