Sunday, December 16, 2007
The Quick and the Undead
I am a librarian magnet! I consider this one of my principal assets as a human being, although it certainly wasn't what I set out to become. I had the usual pre-teen visions of boy magnet-hood, and thereafter periods of yearning towards cheese magnet-hood, millions-of-dollars magnet-hood, and even, during a particularly dark time, tormented-poet magnet-hood. But I'm finally of an age now to know that things are better off as they are. Boy magnet-hood and librarian magnet-hood may, in fact, be mutually exclusive, and cheese magnet-hood has its own drawbacks. So I've more than made my peace with the fact that an egregious proportion of the people I love, the people with whom I'd be thrilled to be locked in a closet, are (or will be, or secretly want to be) librarians.
Of course, I secretly want to be a librarian, too. Librarians are enthusiastic yet unflappable, competent yet kind, meticulous and generous and possessed of bar-code scanners. Not to mention the access they have -delectably untrammeled- to The Good Stuff.
OK, so it's a little seamy. Librarians admit this. Librarians, for my birthday, slip me tracts entitled Book Lust and Ruined by Reading and even Book Lust 2: Derrida Does Dallas. Well, maybe not that last one, but librarians would approve of the exaggeration. Librarians are objectively in favor of subjectivity, subjectively in favor of objectivity, and deliciously resigned to their status as drooling, gibbering acolytes of the book.
Given librarians, who wouldn't read? A mind-boggling number of folks, that's who, at least according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts (pdf). The NEA's data on literary reading suggest that only 57% of American adults read a book for pleasure in the last year. That's ONE BOOK. Not even a paltry two, or four, or seven. Not even (assuming a sedate pace of one book a month) 12! I understand that people have jobs and lives and families, but that's no excuse: more adults ages 25-44 (the employed, family-encumbered adults) manage to read than do their counterparts ages 18-24.
Even more alarming, the figure is only 67% (and declining) for college graduates. And we're still talking only one book here. That's one novel, one collection of poetry, one play. Couldn't you at least get through Waiting for Godot on your lunch hour?
The report goes on to detail national declines in reading and writing skills. Coincidence? The NEA thinks not. This is troubling, but I'm even more troubled by the declines the NEA doesn't track. Because I have a sneaking, snotty, librarian-magnet suspicion that as we read less we become less selfless, less empathetic, less imaginative, and just plain less interesting. There's an old '60s injunction not to trust anyone over 30, but I have trouble trusting anyone who doesn't need their toes to count up how many books they've read in the past year. Readers, I'm firmly convinced, are premium-quality people.
As such, it's our duty to promote books, to advocate for reading, to recruit as many chumps as possible into our zombie army. It's war out there. And I, for one, am reporting to the library.