The Night before Reading

Like many people bound to their circumstances by work (and now a mortgage) I see travel to far-off places is a dream.  On my personal bucket-list is Iceland.  Perhaps that’s a strange place to yearn for in winter, but it’s on my mind today because of Jolabokaflod.  I’ve posted on Jolabokaflod before, but in case the concept is unfamiliar I’d summarize it by saying Icelanders, who are exceptionally literate, give each other books on Christmas Eve and spend the dark hours reading.  For the past three years I’ve taken part in a reading challenge that lists a book in translation, and invariably I choose one by an Icelandic author.  Publishers in Iceland, being less corporate than our native species, accept books for publication somewhat more readily—I’ve been shopping a novel around for nearly a decade now and I’ve read worse.  If it doesn’t jack up the dollar signs, so nobody around here’s interested.

I’m sure it’s not all sweetness and light in Iceland.  I suspect, for one thing, it’s hard to be vegan there.  Then there’d be the need to learn Icelandic.  The nights would be even longer in winter, but then, those long nights would be filled with books.  I sometimes imagine how different America would be if we loved books that much.  I remember well—as you may also—the classmates who grumbled about “having to read” as part of their school curriculum.  And this began well before high school.  Young people’s bodies are full of energy and they want action (which can be found in books, I might add) and new experiences (ditto).  Our culture feeds them the myth that such things lead to happiness.  Instead, they find sitting still tedious.  When life leads them to commute, they fill bus time with devices.

The other day I had an electrician in our house—the previous occupants had some strange ideas about power distribution.  He, as most visitors do, commented that we have a lot of books.  I’m beginning to feel less apologetic about it than I used to.  We have books not only because it’s been part of my job to read, but because we like books.  One of the painful memories of 2018 was the loss of many volumes due to a rainstorm that flooded our garage right after our move.  It still makes me sad to go out there, remembering the friends I lost.  Nevertheless, it’s Christmas Eve, at least in my tradition, and the thought of books combined with the long hours of darkness brings a joy that I’d almost characterize as being Icelandic.  At least in my mind.  Jolabokaflod might well be translated, “silent night, holy night.”

Banned Wagon

In celebration of Banned Book Week (go ahead, let your hair down!), I thought I might muse about some good news.  Since I already posted on my banned book (Slaughterhouse Five) I need another angle of approach.  One of the less envious aspects of being an editor at an academic press is being yoked to facts.  Many authors have a basic misconception about numbers in their heads.  They think their book will sell on the scale that Barnes and Noble, such as it is, will stock them on the shelves.  I have to admit that I dream of walking into a bookstore and finding one of my titles on the shelf—and I know it’s not likely to happen.  Those of us who work in publishing see the hard figures, how many copies have actually sold.  And the results can be quite sobering.

The news isn’t all bad, though.  I ran across an article by Andrew Perrin titled “Who doesn’t read books in America?” and the way the question was phrased made me think.  I’m used to thinking of it the other way around: how many people read, or buy, books?  I once read that about 5% of the US population constitutes the book-buying market.  Now, that is a large number of people, even if it’s on the smaller end of the overall spectrum, but Perrin’s article from the Pew Research Center states that only 24% of Americans state they haven’t read a book, whole or in-part, over the past year.  This, I think, is cause for celebration.  It means more of us are reading than are not, even if we don’t always finish the books we’ve started.

Think of it like this: whether print or electronic, people know to turn to books for information.  Oh, there are all kinds of details I’m leaving out here—the safeguards of a reputable publisher over the self-published manifesto, as well as the self-published brilliant book over what managed to squeak through the review process at a university press because an editor felt the pressure of a quota—but the numbers are encouraging nevertheless.  Looked at this way, more people are reading than are not.  And the best way to promote books is to suggest they should be banned.  That’s why I don’t despair of the shallow books praising Trump—if they’re banned they become prophetic.  Academic books, my colleagues, don’t sell as many copies as you might think, even if they’re not banned.  The good news is, however, that we haven’t forgotten whence to turn for knowledge.

Free Reading

I think I was driving through Montclair, New Jersey when I first noticed one.  A “little free library” in someone’s front yard.  Then I began to notice them around elsewhere.  Neat little outdoor kiosks filled with books.  Despite my love of literacy I’m not inclined to take books from such places.  For one thing my reading tastes are odd, and for another I want other people to catch the interest in reading.  And “free” is a great motivator.  The idea is simple: set up a little free library on your property, seed it with books, and watch it work.  People are encouraged to take what’s there for free.  And leave books they want to donate, if so inclined.  Now that we’re in Pennsylvania we discovered one in a nearby park.  A community feels more homey with books.

Searching for the concept online, I came to LittleFreeLibrary.org.  I’m not sure if they started the trend, but it provides the basic idea.  They even have plans for how to build your own and get your neighborhood reading.  If anyone wants a clue for making America great, here’s a free hint: it will involve books.  They’re a commodity unlike any other.  Mass-produced (often too enthusiastically so) they are generally inexpensive and can be used over and over again.  One of the biggest headaches for publishers is the used book market—since a book is a handful of ideas, once they’re released they’re difficult to control.  They can be sold again for less than market value, and yes, even given away.  Those who read see the value in giveaways, even if there’s no personal profit in it.

Early in our tenure here we decided to take a book to donate each time we go to the park.  Sometimes we forget, of course.  Our first donation was there for two weeks, but then found a new home.  A strange kind of joy accompanied finding the book gone.  Perhaps we’d done some good simply by opening a door and leaving something we were no longer using.  Then something unexpected happened—I saw a book from my reading list in the local.  Should I take it?  I have a list of books to seek in used bookstores, for, to the chagrin of my own industry, I participate in the used book market.  I had been looking for this tome for a few years, reluctant to pay full market value since it has been around since the sixties.  In the end I couldn’t resist.  Next week, I told myself, I’ll take two books to give back.  Literacy’s that way—it’s something even introverts can share.

Investment Advice

One of the more obvious transitions to adulthood involves Christmas becoming less of a holiday for receiving gifts. As we get older we learn that very few things in life are actually free, and that gifts often have some kinds of obligations involved. My favorite gifts have always been books and movies. Each comes with a required investment of time. That doesn’t mean I’m not grateful, or that I don’t want these things—quite the opposite! It simply means that time is required to enjoy them. Or benefit from them. In the workaday world, time is the rarest gift of all. The gifts I received fell mostly into these genres, so I’ll be sharing a number of these books and movies with you over the next few months.

A knowing relative gave me a refrigerator magnet. Our fridge is covered in these, mostly from places we’ve visited. We do have one of the more colorful iceboxes around. This magnet is red and reads “Make America Read Again.” If anything can combat the evil spewing from our nation’s capital, reading can. Those who’ve decided that rhetoric from documented lying lips is more Christian than compassion for the poor need to learn to read again. The election of Trump has ushered in an era of attempted murder of the truth. The tactic of calling any news you don’t like “fake news” so that your own distorted version of reality rules is among the most dangerous in the toolbox of autocracy. Sacrificing truth on the altar of expediency seems like a very strange means of promoting the evangelical message, at least in my opinion. If people would read, they’d know when they were being lied to.

Reading forces you to confront the mind of another. This exercise is unique among human beings, as far as we know. It’s a kind of telepathy, involving the considered contents of another person’s thoughts coming directly to you. Lying is a possibility, of course. Even liars write books. The more widely you read, however, the greater likelihood of discovering the truth. Reading requires investment. It takes time and mental energy. Other activities must be laid aside. The potential benefits, however, are beyond measure. If we could make America read again, the results would be the greatest gift anyone could hope to find under any tree. It’s time to begin reading through the books that made their way to me this holiday season. This is a gift whose costs I gladly accept. It’s an investment in the future. Even Christmas trees require daily watering.

Independent Bookstore Day

Many modern mini-holidays are centered around things you might buy. I don’t mind that so much in the case of Independent Bookstore Day—of which I wish you a happy one. Quite by accident I found myself in an independent bookstore just last night, not aware I was prematurely celebrating. If anything might save us from the muddle we’re in, it’s books. We live in a society with plentiful distractions, many of them shallow. Books take some effort. They demand your time. They make you take some quiet space to think. Books came along with, and perhaps were the source of, civilization. Today we’re harried and hurried and frantic with an electric source of information and entertainment that never turns off. And we’re seeing the results of that playing out on an international scale. How different it would be if we’d grab a book instead!

The strange thing is that those inclined to action often suppose reading to be an utterly passive activity. The basis for human progress, however, has often been what someone has read. Surprisingly, books can be the source of progress. When we see reactionary elections taking place around the world, leaders who don’t read emerge as the hailed champions of regress. We’re living through that right now. Books can be dangerous. Think about it—you’re being given access, however briefly, to someone else’s mind. The combined power of minds is an impressive thing. If what I’m reading is anything to go by, the hive mind is a source of incredible strength. You want action? Put multiple minds together. There’s a reason that civilization has gone hand-in-hand with literacy.

In the wake of Borders going under, independent bookstores have started to make a comeback. Those of us who work in the publishing industry have to keep an eye on those numbers. A visit to a bookstore is all about discovery. Quite often I’ve walked in with a list in hand. When I exit my list has grown rather than shrunk, and the purchase I’ve made was likely not on the list to begin with. Independent Bookstore Day gives us a chance to think about how very much we do not know. Unlike those who claim power and brag that they don’t read, admitting that we have more to learn is the way toward progress. I may not be the most active man in the world, but I do recommend action in the form of getting to a bookstore. If we each do our part, we can’t help but to make the world a better place.

Happy World Book Day

In times of distress, as well as of joy, I turn to books. Since about November there have been more of the former than the latter, so I’m cheered that today is World Book Day. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designates World Book Day to promote literacy internationally. If only the White House would pay a little more attention to the UN maybe the world situation would improve. In any case, books are always worth celebrating. At any given time I’ve got three or four book-reading projects going on simultaneously. Well, not literally simultaneously; I have books I read in the morning, different books for the bus ride, and books I read before bed. Often there are others scattered in there as well, such as books that I take with me in case I get unexpectedly delayed somewhere and want something to read. It’s a life full of books. It’s a wonderful life.

I can’t imagine enduring the mental vacuity that must come from not reading. It sounds like torture to me. Yes, I’ve occasionally been caught up in the action-packed episode of travel and adventure (or what passes for adventure for a guy like me). Hours spent with other people in locations not at home when there’s something to do every minute of the day. But then, when the fun’s over, I open a book. I read before bed even when I’m traveling, and since I’m an early riser I read before anyone else is awake. It’s a form of communion. Having access to the intelligent minds of others is a rare privilege that shouldn’t be scorned. World Book Day should be an international holiday.

Books, strictly speaking, didn’t necessarily originate as sacred texts. Very early in the process of writing, however, such holy documents began to appear. Civilization itself grew through the cultivation of writing. Bibles, Qur’ans, Books of Mormon—for all the troubles sacred texts may cause, they’re reminders of the importance of reading. And once reading starts, it’s impossible to stop. Reading is resistance to the Zeitgeist that’s haunting the politics of the day. Had voters been informed, it is absolutely certain, neither Brexit nor Trump would have happened. We need to read, and be seen reading. Ignorance is the final enemy to be defeated. Celebrate World Book Day. Wish people happy World Book Day. And for the sake of civilization itself, get caught reading.

Reading Lesson

“The President” responded to the Women’s March on Washington by tweeting that he was “under the impression that we just had an election!” Perhaps if “the president” read more he would understand that instead of looking in a mirror you need to look out the window once in a while. The Electoral College is even more outdated than the Republican Party and has only stood in place so long because our elected officials lack the energy to dismantle it. Like Daylight Saving Time. A loss by nearly 3 million votes is not a win in anybody’s book. I would suggest that Mr. Trump and his party learn to read. In strings of more than just 140 characters. Those who read know that Russia hacked our election. Voters can speak with their feet as well as with their fingers. We can see the Republican Party for what it’s truly become. Those accustomed to a lifestyle of theft sometimes don’t realize that others have seen their fingers in the cookie jar.

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As one of the many marchers I would say if you want a mandate, look out your window. George Washington, if I recall my history correctly, did not try to put his will over on an unwilling country. Indeed, most of us believe he had too much integrity than to try to hide behind something like an Electoral College to reinforce his tenuous grasp on the reins of power. It’s our constitutional right, Grand Old Party. We can protest. Legally. We will protest. Continually. We will not let you suffer under the delusion that you won anything. Your party gamed the system and any “president” who reads would say “I can see now that I misunderstood.” Backing down is not cowardice. Listening to others is not weakness. Being “president” means having to ignore your cronies once in a while. Vox populi, for those who know how to read, means “the voice of the people.” Democracy is upheld by the consent of the governed, not electoral casuistry.

Those who rely on crooked systems to claim a mandate need to learn to read. Reading requires thought. Concentration. And the will to repair rather than to dismantle. Try ignoring the handlers once in a while. Was the “president” not at the inauguration? Did post-truth press secretaries hide the photos? Please look away from the mirror. Governing with the consent of the governed is hard work. It’s not about brokering deals and looking for one’s own best angle. It’s not about “me first.” As long as any disabled child, any woman who’s been sexually assaulted or discriminated against, and any African American can be told that his or her life doesn’t matter the job will be never ending. The accountability just started this weekend. Read and learn. We are the people.