All during my 45-minute commute home through the Wisconsin countryside, I listened to a discussion on the radio about the effect of the Internet on the future of books and reading. I was stopping at the library branch near my home to pick up a book I had reserved after reading about it on the Internet, which seemed ironic given the subject matter of the discussion. Since they were still talking, I parked the car in front of the library and listened.
What had caught my attention was this broadcast of public radio's On Point, which airs here in the evening. The guests were Stephen Levy, who wrote the Newsweek cover story on the future of reading, and literary critic Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies. They were discussing Amazon's new Kindle e-book and the future of reading, going on to discuss, in a broader sense, the future of books in a wired world. This was just a day after the National Endowment for the Arts issued this gloomy report on the state of reading in America.
The percentage of adults who are proficient in reading prose has fallen at the same time that the proportion of people who read regularly for pleasure has declined.Fewer and fewer people are reading for fun. That's the context in which Levy and Birkerts were discussing the technology of reading. The reason I remained in the car was that I was waiting to hear a single mention of the word "library."
Three years ago [the NEA's] “Reading at Risk,” which was based on a study by the Census Bureau in 2002, provoked a debate among academics, publishers and others, some of whom argued that the report defined reading too narrowly by focusing on fiction, poetry and drama. Others argued that there had not been as much of a decline in reading as the report suggested.
This time the endowment did not limit its analysis to so-called literary reading. It selected studies that asked questions about “reading for fun” or “time spent reading for pleasure,” saying that this could refer to a range of reading materials.
“It’s no longer reasonable to debate whether the problem exists,” said Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis for the endowment. “Let’s not nitpick or wrangle over to what extent is reading in decline.”
I waited in vain. Levy and Birkerts did not talk about libraries. This strikes me as an incredible omission. I don't see how you can discuss the future of books and reading without discussing libraries. Public libraries encourage a love of reading among the young and sustain it among adults. And Amazon's Kindle alone will never do that. It can only be filled with content you purchase, and in order to purchase it, you need to know what you want to buy.
Sometimes, we go to the library because we know what we want to read. Sometimes we don't. To go to the library is to go swimming in a vast sea of literature -- not just today's latest self-help books and heavily hyped best sellers -- but books from every time and place, one vast backlist that doesn't get remaindered, or at least not very often. The library is where one thing leads to another. The library is the place where a walk in the stacks can change your life -- where you go to find something to read, and in the process discover yourself. It's hard to see e-books totally replacing that, which is why it's so important to support and nurture our public libraries.
This is what I was thinking as I parked in the dark in front of the Sequoya branch of the library and listened to the guys on the radio. I would have called in and told them, except that the show is taped in the morning in Boston.