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Reading L.A.?

<i> Thomas Curwen is deputy editor of Book Review</i>

The best thing about my school library is that I hardly knew it existed. That happy disarray of books in the back of the assembly room was always there and saved me whenever my pre-teen restlessness, usually 20 minutes before the end of study hall, threatened to catch Mr. Arthur Brown’s punitive gaze.

They saved me--those tattered hard covers, the Time-Life volumes, the encyclopedias--from countless sentences and detention, and I didn’t think twice about them, any more than I thought about reading “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Good Earth” or “The Yearling.” Or thumbing through the pictures of Europe after the war or staring agape at the story of the chicken that lived for three days even after its head had been chopped off.

Escape, solace, excitement and relief--these books were so much more than books, and I wish the students at the Lorne Street Elementary School in Northridge had some of this experience. Their library--a standard 1950s classroom, American flag, beige linoleum floor, acoustic tile ceiling, a throw rug and shelves on four walls--is straight out of Walker Evans, an image as evocative for what’s missing as for what’s present.

Simply put, there is no library here, just a scattering of some 3,000 titles, half-filling the shelves. If 3,000 sounds like a lot, consider that the Lorne Street Elementary School has 725 students; that’s four books per student. In other states, the average is 18 per student, which makes this library a forlorn sight and something Bob Fishman, the principal at Lorne, hopes to change. But first he has to solve a rather difficult math problem. Let’s take a look:

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If Principal Fishman has an annual budget of $2,000 for library books and the average book costs $20, how long will it take for him to build his library to meet the national average? (Don’t factor in the 3,000 he already has: It is estimated that the average publication date of books in most California school libraries is 1973, and Nixon’s no longer the president, computers no long4er fill entire rooms.)

Suffice to say, it’s going to take more than a calculator to solve this problem, and for that reason, Fishman has issued an appeal. He is hoping to entice corporations and local businesses to buy one shelf of books with a $500 donation. In return, he’ll engrave and mount a brass plaque beneath each shelf, crediting the benefactor. So far he’s cast a wide net, targeting nearly 60 potential contributors, ranging from the Cheesecake Factory in Calabasas and the Tejon Ranch Corp. in Lebec to General Motors, Gucci and Gillette. So far only the PTA has come through, putting up the first shelf. That’s a start. Fifty remain to be filled.

Fishman hopes that this won’t be a long summer. He hopes that by October, books, computers (courtesy the Annenberg Foundation), volunteers and children will fill this room, which will then be open seven hours each day; he hopes he can lure his students away from Nintendo, the Internet and TV, back to the rewards of reading.

That such a dream sounds extraordinarily ambitious is a sign of the times. What once was commonplace and expected is today unusual and seemingly impossible. In the 1960s when I grew up, books were something you never had a shortage of. They may not have been new or pristine, but at least they were there, steering me out of trouble.

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Kids today tell a different story, and it is the absences in their lives--more than likely neither noticed nor cared about--that will leave the most indelible mark on them. In 10 years, look for them to turn to us and ask why they grew up this way. If we’re lucky, they’ll be angry. Their indifference will be something to fear more.

Children should be given an opportunity to be thoughtless, an opportunity not to worry about what they have or don’t have. It is a gift, one that fosters a faith in the future and an indebtedness to the past. Abdicate that opportunity and we betray our future. That reading and literacy are the foundation of education, a foundation of society, is a cliche that unfortunately bears repeating. We may recognize their importance but simply fail to take responsibility for them.

Parents are scolded for not reading to their children and rightly so. Let Principal Fishman take this reprimand one step further: We should all be scolded for not becoming more involved in our community’s schools. It seems that $500 for a shelf of books is an easy first step and the perfect reason for Book Review to begin a new feature: an opportunity for schools throughout Southern California to present their needs to our readers. If we can fill the library shelves at Lorne Street Elementary, perhaps we can do more for other students as well.

BOOK WISH

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School: Lorne Street Elementary School

Address: 17440 Lorne Street, Northridge, CA 91325

Principal: Bob Fishman

Wish: To rebuild the school library with 50 shelves of books; a $500 tax-deductible donation will fill one shelf.

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To help: (818) 997-2550

Or e-mail: rbfishman@aol.com

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If your school library is in need of books or volunteer workers, please fax your specific book list to Book Review at (213) 237-5916.

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