The Biblioracle: A meditation on the future of books and reading

The Biblioracle: A meditation on the future of books and reading
(Terry Vine, Getty Images)

Two separate incidents made me a little bit sad over the last couple weeks.

One was in my academic writing class when I asked my students (most of them freshmen) if they'd consider taking another English class at some point in their college careers. The answer for 18 out of 20 was "no."


The other incident was when I pulled up next to an SUV at a stoplight. Two young girls were strapped in the back. The younger was about 8, the older maybe 10. Each of them had iPads, the younger using it to draw something on screen with her finger. The older was playing Fruit Ninja.


These two incidents combined in my head because they made me worry about the future of books and reading. Now, I don't like to think of myself as a cultural Eeyore, counting the days to our collective doom. I actually believe in the inherent power and value of reading, and that something this meaningful won't ever disappear entirely.

But we should worry about bright, well-educated young adults deciding that even a single college course in literature is not worth their time. The actual response from my students to my question was stronger than "no," closer to "you've got to be kidding."

I asked why they'd come to feel such hostility toward literature. Their answer: school.

As we talked in more detail, it became clear that at some point, almost all of them had loved reading. After all, what child doesn't enjoy being read to, and then once they have the power themselves, consuming as much as they can get their hands on, even reading the same books over and over? I read Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" so many times that I memorized just about every poem.


School, though, is a different matter. School asks them what the things they read mean, while presuming there's a single right answer to the question. The advent of high-stakes, No Child Left Behind testing means students spend days and weeks reading short passages and being asked questions about context and main messages, never experiencing the true pleasures of being aborbed by a book.

My students report that by the time they got to high school, the smart money was on reading the CliffsNotes and waiting for the teacher to tell them what they needed to know so they could regurgitate it onto the test. One student longed to be done with school so she could "read like I used to, just because I enjoyed it."

Now you can see why this made me sad.

As to the two little girls in the back of the SUV, both of whom were still of the age where reading is a wonder, I was dismayed to see them with tablets designed to distract them. I understand why parents do this. An occupied child is a quiet child. But by giving them iPads instead of books, they are privileging distraction over engagement, the temporary over the permanent.

I've played Fruit Ninja; it's pretty fun, for about three minutes. The fascination is more perishable than potato salad in the July sun.

Give that child a book, though, and watch her not notice that they've arrived at their final destination. See her wrestle out of the seat belt while keeping her eyes on the page, and even ask if she can take the book with her.

And know that the book is always with her, even if she's not reading.

Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.

The Biblioracle offers his recommendations

1. "The Secret Country" by Pamela Dean

2. "Paladin of Souls" by Lois McMaster Bujold

3. "A Gentleman Undone" by Celia Grant

4. "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed

5. "A Woman of the Iron People" by Eleanor Arnason

— Faith E., Baltimore

I must admit that this list largely falls outside even my Biblioracle expertise. But I shall not be deterred, nor shy away from unearthing just the right recommendation. I'm going with John Scalzi's "Old Man's War," which is contemporary sci-fi in the tradition of old masters such as Robert Heinlein.

1. "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon

2. "The Lazarus Project" by Aleksandar Hemon

3. "Foe" by J.M. Coetzee

4. "The Skating Rink" by Roberto Bolaño

5. "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides

— Brian A., Chicago

This is a list more in my comfort zone. This list indicates a reader who likes a little philosophy to chew on as part of his narrative. I have just the right book: "Remainder" by Tom McCarthy.

1. "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn

2. "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" by Jung Chang

3. "Golden Boy" by Abigail Tarttelin

4. "Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver

5. "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald" by Therese Anne Fowler

— Jennifer D., Toronto

For Jennifer, a new release from an underappreciated writer, Jean Thompson, "The Humanity Project."

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