Friday, July 28, 2006

Still Life:  Boy Underneath a Tree Reading

A couple of weeks ago I saw something startling on the campus where I teach.  It was an adolescent boy sitting under a tree reading a book.  Just reading.  Not a textbook, not listening to his I-Pod, not using a laptop, not taking notes, but just reading a book for the sheer pleasure of it.  It is sad that it is such an unusual sight nowadays even for a college campus.  You usually see students outside smoking, talking, using their cell phones, or some combination of the three. If they have a test that day they might franticly be going over their notes or exploring a neglected text book which heretofore has severed no other purpose than a profitable commodity for some publisher or as ballast in a backpack. Think about that, on a college campus it is unusual to see somebody just sitting under a tree reading a book.  He wasn't even a student, but I hope one day he will be.  It is nice to have students that actually like to read, or even students that will read if pressed. 

When I was a young man I spent several weeks in France.  Most of that time I was in Paris, and one thing impressed me.  The street people in Paris always had paperback books.   Say what you want about France, but that impressed me, and I have never heard anyone else mention it.  Every single street person I saw had a book, and usually they were even reading it. 

My oldest daughter, to my surprise, was deficient in her reading when she finished the third grade.  That summer I launched one of my most successful parenting initiatives ever.  That summer I took her and my son to the library each week, and they were allowed to check out anything they wanted.  I also selected various books for each of them.  Everyday they had an hour of sustained silent reading.  No television, no stereo or radio, but just reading whatever they liked.  The books were stored in milk crates at the end of the hallway.  The one thing I asked was that they try to remember to put the books back in the crate so that our cards would not be blocked.  The first few days were tough.  They complained, they were inattentive, and I spent more time redirecting them than they did reading.  But, by the end of the week they were into it.  I never told them when the hour was up and before long they were going way over the required time.  My daughter today is an English major and an avid reader. 

Of all the inventions and gadgets we have produced as a species I doubt if anything has been, or will be, as marvelous as the written word.  I also think it will stand the test of time.  Audio recordings and video are nice, but there is something very very special about books. After that I think the next best innovation we have come up with is the public lending library. 

In my own life I have been profoundly moved, educated, and inspired by books of all kinds.  To me reading is one of life's sweetest pleasures, and it opens up the world.  I can read about what it is like to live in Casablanca and restore an old house that was once occupied by a caliph (Tahir Shah's outstanding A Year in Casablanca:  The Caliph's House).  I can read the exquisite science fiction of Arthur C. Clark, the visionary/prophetic science fiction of Isaac Asimov, and sweeping historical novels such as the Raj Quartet.  I do not understand people that do not read. They are as mysterious to me as country music.

This summer, many years after my oldest daughter had her successful summer of reading, I have two younger daughters.  As a family we have severely curtailed television, and are very near the point of eliminating it altogether.  Frankly it was a hard thing to do for all of us.  It is so easy to just park kids in front of the television and have their minds turned into mush rather than finding something productive for them to do.  Something like playing outside, conversing, writing a letter, or reading.  I shudder to think of the time we have all wasted preoccupied with something as totally useless as television, and frankly sports comes in a close second.

I wonder what that boy was reading.  I wish now I had asked him, but at the time I did not want to disturb him. 

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