Readers wanted; An early introduction to books is one way to develop a lifetime of appreciation for the printed page
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 14 June 2016)

My mother loved stories, and loved books that told stories. She considered it both a pleasure and a duty to teach young people to make books a part of their lives. She passed on her enthusiasm to four children and a dozen grandchildren by the simplest and most effective way -- by reading to them and reading with them.

I believe she felt this was as important as anything she did.

After eight decades I can still hear her voice reading Anne of Green Gables and talking about Anne Shirley and the brother and sister who adopted her, Matthew and Marilla. She made it clear that Anne was a poor orphan girl who overcame the difficulties of her life through the power of her imagination.

My mother's descendants now include five journalists, a novelist, a librarian and several other readers. I thought of her when reading the impassioned letters that commented on my piece last week about the future of books and literature in the digital age. I mentioned that Paul Socken, as a professor of French at the University of Waterloo, discovered a few years ago that not many of his students spent any time reading out of their own interest. They had no connection with books.

They were like a young woman who recently described her life in a Toronto Star feature called Dating Diaries. "I love being part of a book club," she said. "It's partly an excuse to drink and partly an excuse to try reading an actual book." Apparently, she considered books distant and weird, to be taken only occasionally.

My piece was mostly about the history of books and the evolution of digital publishing. Several readers were most interested in mourning the downfall of books and the shrinking of the audience for them. Studying the history of communism, one reader discovered the extent of underground writing in the Soviet bloc. "I realized how books circulated as typed and photostatted or Gestetnered in very small runs" and yet were treasured as real literature. "Of course, that presumed people interested in reading."

If fewer people are reading, then the explanation might be found in the decadent age in which we live. That notion has considerable support among my readers. One of them, from Toronto, thinks the general decadence has poisoned the young. "Young people today," this correspondent says, "don't want to inform themselves -- they want to be titillated by the superficial culture in which they are immersed. It is as if history, morality and independence are no longer topics of interest or worthy of discussion. Only fun, materialism, spectator sports and lowest common denominator entertainment capture the attention of the public." Were things so much better before? Was the cultural air more salubrious in 1950, or 1980? Only a selective memory will lead you to think it was.

When we talk about books we often mention their physical quality and the settings in which we encounter them. One of my readers said we shouldn't forget "the sheer tactile pleasure of beautifully bound volumes and the visual impact of perfectly printed pictures that no digital reader can equal." Agreed. But such books are still available, and for sale. And there's nothing to keep digital books from improving.

A Calgary reader described her feelings about libraries: "There was something cozy and welcoming and even stabilizing in wandering the shelves of public libraries with their dark wood panelled shelves, sometimes arched ceilings. It was like history literally being passed on. There was such respect for place, with leaded glass windows and kids sinking into chairs and feeling part of something wonderful."

The magic that clings to certain kinds of books extends even to hymnals. A reader in Knowlton, Que., says: "Our local Anglican parish church flashes the words to hymns on a screen but old hymnals are still available in the pews. I always read from these, partly because I like handling the same books that were in the hands of earlier generations but I also like to know where the music comes from and who wrote, and/or translated, the words." Even the humble bookmark gets a tribute in one letter: "People have been saying dire things about the future of the book for quite a while, but people are reading them, people are getting excited about things they've read. I see it in others and I experience it myself every day. Nothing has been invented to replace the way it feels to watch your bookmark travel through the body of a book that is becoming part of you."

Another reader argues in favour of e-books and against the belief that young people read more books in the good old days. He says he's only sorry that he can't find all of his books in e-book format. He loves being able to carry many books around in a wallet-sized tablet. As for the reading of university students, he doubts whether they were much different from those of 2016. In university he liked novels. "And if my fellow students didn't read novels unless they had to, I would not have been surprised." So when people announce that things are going downhill, "I know that it isn't true."

Sounds about right. In my own youth, as I remember it, only a small minority of my friends and acquaintances ever mentioned reading a book. How much they missed!

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