Work is the curse of the reading class, or the virtue of reading

Work is the curse of the reading class.

How many books did you read last year? According to some reports, one in four Americans did not read a single book in the last twelve months. Three out of the four who did read in the last year read only one book. But the reports are even more dismal when a distinction is made between any books and books of literature. For example, books on business, cooking, gardening or self-help are in a different category from books of literature. Further, books on business and marketing by Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin or Simon Sinek are not considered literary works. Books by Dante, Plato and Shakespeare are works of high literature. Books of literature by American authors include Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost and Thornton Wilder.

My own reading pattern shadows the national trend. This discourages me. Years ago I read more than 50 books a year. In addition to that, I used to read several literary journals, magazines and newspapers on the bus ride to the office each day. It was a delicious and robust period of time. But life interrupted this reading regimen. A dream job, mega commute, cross-country move, career change, new job at a legacy media organization, and more commuting disrupted my reading habits.

It is a struggle for me to completely read one single book from cover to cover. The desk in front of the window holds eight books. I may have to return all these to the public library partially read. Or renew them. The library must be weary of me renewing a copy of a theological book. I must have renewed it several times over the last few months. One report I read stated the reason people do not read books is due to their busy work/life balance.

Great disruption.

The interruption to the reading habit is due in part to the daily commute. 90 minutes a day spent traveling from home to work. Public transit would be nice. However, no public transit system services the rural communities surrounded by cultivated fields and farmland. Travel accounts for more than 15 days of my time each year. And then there are the long hours of production work. The job is mentally demanding. My fatigued mind only desires to turn on the record player and go to sleep when I return home.

Solution.

Most Americans spend more than two hours each day on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. That equals more than 40 days a year. From an economic stand point that seems like a lot of wasted productivity. What that means in practical terms is that my social media feeds are on life support. I do not spend time on Facebook or Twitter at all. LinkedIn occasionally. And I deleted my Instagram account. Eliminating social media activity allowed me to reclaim some of the time lost to commuting and work.

Great books.

A second action put into practice during the last few years included reading great books of literature. Mostly. Plato’s The Republic, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglas, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are some of the books read during the last year and a half. The classical education curriculum of my children helped me form a list of great books to read. I added a few books to the list to include Asian and Near Eastern studies. I explored Basho’s The Narrow Road, an anthology of Rumi, Hafix and Lalla, and Ryokan’s Sky Above, Great Wind. Most recently I attempted to read and compare three different translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. An ambitious task that I failed. Ended up focusing on selected cantos for comparison before the books were shuffled back to the public library.

The virtue of reading.

Why is reading books, especially, great books, important? The virtue of being well-read is the goal. Do not leave it up to the academics and professionals to read great books. C. S. Lewis wrote that “the simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” He continued by encouraging readers to acquire firsthand knowledge of the source material rather than to rely on secondhand commentary. Being a well-read individual has the potential to foster a civilized society. But you must be vigilant, designate time, pick up a book and read it cover to cover.

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A bookless American library

Empty shelves at the downtown city library

Why can’t I find a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five at a local public library? I’m wandering through the aisles of bookshelves thinking, It’s not an obscure title. Is it? Earlier, I visited a couple library branches and couldn’t find a single copy. How is that possible? Later I would find a copy at a bookstore (actually, I would find copies at three of the local bookstores, but I would be out of cash and wouldn’t be able to afford to buy a copy… more on that later… like, wait-for-my-memoir later…).

Is it possible? Are American libraries moving toward booklessness? At the main, downtown city library I stare at a whole wall of bookshelves emptied of books (see photo). Glancing around the place it appears that the only thing people do at that library is use the toilet, enjoy the air conditioned space on hot summer days, and rent CDs and DVDs. The magazine racks are full and there is an man, probably in his 60s, reading the latest copy of the New Yorker. Beyond the reference desk, I see that every computer terminal is occupied. My mood is turning away from searching for a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, to mischievous. I want to walk over to the reference desk librarian and ask, “Where might I find a book about Tralfamadore?” From experience, I know what the reference desk librarian will do. The scene will go something like this:

“Excuse me, but where might I find a book about Tralfamadore?”

“Tralfamadore? Let me see,” he says as he opens a web browser on the computer and sounds out the word tral-fam-a-dore under his breath. “Oh, Tralfamadore. From Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five.”

“Did you just google that?” I ask.

He looks at me and doesn’t say anything.

“Shouldn’t that be unholy sacrilege to use Google in a library?” I ask. “I mean, this is supposed to be a house of intellect.”

He folds his hands in front of the keyboard and says, “I used Wikipedia.”

“Wikipedia?” I snort.

The reference desk librarian catches the eyes of the library’s security guard who walks toward us.

The scene concludes with me mumbling something about the democratization of content leaves an intellectual void that is too quickly filled with bits of data rather than depth of knowledge and wisdom.

But I don’t walk to the reference desk. I get lost somewhere in the fiction aisles–somewhere in the section where books by authors with last names beginning with “k” are placed. The whole thing–the search for a single copy of a book and the failure to locate it at a public library–is loathsome to me. I have this uneasy feeling ‪that Ray Bradbury’s‬ ‪Fahrenheit 451‬ may be prophetic. And I want to start memorizing large volumes of literature for the mere preservation of it to share with the next generation. Isn’t that why books are written? To share not just with this present age, but to extend beyond the life of the writer? My eye’s find a book about bean trees–or rather, a novel. It’s not a very thick novel, but it seems to have found me and I can’t just leave it on the bookshelf and I don’t want to leave the library empty-handed.

After the book is processed silently by a librarian, I walk to catch a bus home. Reading the first few pages at the transit center I know I have found a new friend in this book. It’s a feeling I can’t say I have regarding Google or Wikipedia. To me, they are repositories of data–vapid of personality in the same fashion as the  Borg–to be mined or to be assimilated.

Call me a snob, but really, we’re a nation of dunces

“The shrinking public attention span fostered by video is closely tied to the second important anti-intellectual force in American culture: the erosion of general knowledge.”

Link The Dumbing Of America

“I thought Europe was a country”

“Ms. Jacoby… said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way. Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.” Link “I thought Europe was a country”