Finding Time For The Big Read

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - October 24, 2007

“Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that is neither innocent nor praiseworthy. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me, and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe.

“... to read in this way is as reprehensible as doping, and I never cease to wonder at the impertinence of great readers who, because they are such, look down on the illiterate. From the standpoint of what eternity is it better to have read a thousands books than to have ploughed a million furrows?

“Let us admit that reading with us is just a drug that we cannot do without - who of this band does not know the restlessness that attacks him when he has been severed from reading too long, the apprehension and irritability, and the sigh of relief which the sight of a printed page extracts from him? - and so let us be no more vainglorious than the poor slaves of the hypodermic needle or the pint-pot.”

This famous bibliophiles’confessional begins The Book-Bag, a short story by the English writer Somerset Maugham. All of us who’ve spent too many hours in libraries or too many dollars in bookstores - all who’ve snarled at wife, children, friend or neighbor who has interrupted our embrace of a book or article - know the truth of Maugham’s words.

I certainly do. I like people who laugh. And I like people who read. When I stumble on people who do both - abundantly - I fall in love, show admiration and downright reverence, seek out their company, buy them drinks and give them books.

But readers are increasingly hard to find. According to a recent study of the National Endowment for the Arts, reading - as a pastime, habit, addiction, whatever - is in serious decline among us.

Currently, less than half of the nation’s adults read a book in the course of a year - any book, on any subject. And when broken down by age group, young people are reading the least.

Every teacher, from kindergarten to Ph.D., knows this. Getting students to read the text - any text on any subject - is hard, hard, hard.

Not that teachers don’t try. From Kau to Kapaa, they urge their students on: “Read 25 books a year and we will celebrate, have a day of games, contests, water sports - you name it. Just please read.”

And for a while, many will. But, oh gawd, the distractions are endless. From the day our darlings are potty trained, we have them in youth soccer leagues, youth football, youth baseball-bowling-paddling-and martial arts. Not to mention the hula halau.

Then, when we bring them home, near total exhaustion, we prod them to do their homework - which involves reading, of course, and is called “-work.” They balk, and they avoid: in front of the TV, in MySpace, with their iPod or on their cellphone in their ear. Seldom, if ever, with a good book.

This month Hawaii is taking part in “The Big Read,” a National Endowment for the Arts effort to stop the decline in reading in the United States. The local effort is urging us all to read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, a story about Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters.

I’ve never read it - seen the movie, of course, but never read the book. I think I will before this October is gone.

But I fear that I’m not optimistic about “The Big Read” effort. Inculcating the love for, addiction to, or even passing interest in reading may well be a lost cause.

As children, my generation had time: lots and lots of time. My Midwestern summers stretched out over three long months. For the first 10 years of my life, neither our summer cottage nor our home during the school year contained a television set; neither did they contain many books.

But there was a Carnegie library in our town and a kind and an encouraging librarian - and there were those slow summer days.

That’s all you needed - time to read.

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