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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 2/18/09

Reading for Democracy

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Have you noticed that adolescents have become uninterested in reading? I don’t think any of us need a professionally conducted survey to let us know that adolescents are not that interested in reading any longer. Most of their time is not spent buried in a good book. Of course, even when some of us old people went to school, a good majority of our classmates could not find time to read. They too had other things to occupy their time.

Then I say with some great recrimination in mind, well, this is a fine mess you have gotten us into. Yes, it is clear, to me and a number of others as well, that this form of participatory democracy is about to die if we cannot excite young people to develop the habit of the book. Without a good habit like that to inform yourself of all that is happening not just at home but around the world, there is no way anyone can be an informed voter without that habit.

I recall watching the film version of Fahrenheit 451 and thinking how prescient Ray Bradbury was. There were all those rebels memorizing books because there were now firemen who burned them. But the flip side of that story is that we do not need a fireman to burn the books. We just need to have a population habituated to other means of entertainment and information than in reading to make sure the same things happen.

What does every revolutionary know about change, real change in a democracy? If you have an illiterate population, you have a population easily manipulated. Now we have people like Chris Hedges screaming almost daily about the coming totalitarian takeover of this county. Why does he believe that will happen? He believes we are all so easily manipulated by the screaming right wing maniacs that we will all fall into line as they demonize the immigrants, liberals, intellectuals and a return to the kind of reactionary times of the 1920s and 1930s will fall upon us.

Could he be correct? Yes, I suppose he could be. Look at what the people around you are reading. Look at what those who want to go to college want to major in. Look at how hard it is for people to go to a bookstore and browse and know what it is that most of those books are really about.

Taking a step back and thinking this through from a more personal and career aspect, I can report just anecdotally that most of the people who I taught writing were not all that interested in reading. While that may seem totally unbelievable, it was a complete surprise to me when most of the students I taught found reading to be a bore. The irony of this was lost on them. They mistakenly saw writing as a way to make huge amounts of money and to achieve some kind of celebrity. As to the activity of reading, to them, it took up too much time that could be more profitably spent writing their sure-to-be best seller. After hearing too many students voice this idea, I came to the conclusion that things had to change. The first thing that changed was that I determined only writing students who committed to reading would I teach.
No matter how often I heard those comments, I never failed to just find myself tongue-tied by the utter nonsense these students spoke without any awareness of what it meant to their presumed livelihood and to the fate of our shared communities.

Then looking around my own neighborhood in Queens, I discovered that we had no bookstores. I mean here we were living in the supposed book capital of the world and we had not one bookstore. No place for readers to congregate and sit and talk to each other, recommend books, learn of new authors and classic ones as well and what their work was like. There was no place where journals of literary as well as current events could be purchased. We could not have a live author come speak to us. We were in desperate straits as far as I was concerned. I then heard a show on C-Span report that New York State was the lowest, per capita, of bookstores nationwide. Can you believe that?

It is obvious that millions of people have come to rely on to feed their need  for books. But Amazon cannot offer you what a good bookstore can offer. No matter how many times they try to pair me up with books others have purchased based on my recent purchases, that is not the same as a stranger taking the time to talk to me about something he or she has read that has made them excited and sharing that with me. I am not a big fan of book clubs because I think it is a way of trivializing the reading experience. Too many publishers saw the bulk sales potential of book clubs, prepared the appropriately bland reading guides for these clubs and sold us on what books are supposed to mean. A furtherance of that horrible English teacher we have all had who made us figure out what the message of the book was rather than sharing in the thrill of just what the words on the page said.

It may be silly to constantly knock Oprah for her book club forays but again, her need for books is about as sophisticated as her anointing of Dr. Phil was. To her and to lots of people, books are about getting better, recovering from something. I do not quite understand where that idea came from, but many writers noticed and thus fraud was a possibility that they were willing to commit by writing a book that Oprah would deem worthy of selecting for her book club and the cash registers would be clanging in the wild commercial dreams of many authors whose stories whether true or false were going to be scooped up by a largely manipulated and manipulatable crew of readers.

What no one seems to notice in any of these get-better and get-rich schemes is that this is all about commerce and not about the books at all. Oprah places her brand on the covers of these authors’ books as if she had something to do with their creation. (Maybe in some cases she did.) Yet, the point of reading is not at all like watching television or playing video games or even listening to one’s iPod. Reading is not about entertainment or to improve you.

Reading, like any real medium of exchange, is time spent at an activity that forces one to think, to evaluate, to analyze, and to make some important choices. Will I, for example, continue to read this book? Does this story really make me want to continue on to the end? If not, why not? I learned a long time ago that there are periods in my life when some books are not going to be available to me. I am either not ready or mature enough to understand the contents of the book or I am not open enough to take it in. That is one of the pleasures of reading. The sheer abundance of available books and the ways in which over time we learn how to read better, with deeper understanding and with greater appreciation of what is on the page.

In the end it must be said that now we need a vastly improved literacy rate all over the world. In these exceedingly difficult times when information and insight are at a premium, knowing how to read so that the facts and perceptions can be deduced are great skills to have. In order to read in that way as well as to have the skills  to read so that one can evaluate how a book or article of story or poem is written means expanding the borders of one’s consciousness. This process is a form of liberation. A reader who has this kind of skill set is able to read between the lines and gather more from each and every sentence they read no matter what form it is in.  

These types of readers we as a democracy are desperate to have. We need to convert those who reject reading in principle. We need to help them understand why their help to preserve our way of life is dependent on them signing onto a reading program. With these thoughts in mind, I am beginning a READING FOR DEMOCRACY program that will go cross country with a carload of books. I want to talk to anyone who wants to find new ways to make reading an activity of our citizenship. In this way, we can actually understand the words we mouth when we pledge allegiance to our flag, when we take our marriage vows, when we baptize our children and when we look at the rules we must obey in order to drive a car. We can thus demand that all agreements be written so we can understand them and want to understand them. When we vote for a candidate it will be based on not only what he or she says but lined up against their public record and not what some pundit has been paid to tell us.

In other words, every act we take in order to participate in a democracy should be based on how well we relate to the written language and how we use it to make life better for us all. We must reject those who try and manipulate us through fear and the spread of lies as well as those who promise us pie in the sky, and the only way to do that is to know how to read and to read with attention paid to the words, where they come from and who else has applied the same means to coerce us to follow their ways.

This task is huge and thus so important it will take all of us to make it happen. I look forward to any and all suggestions about how to put this idea into action.

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Deborah Emin is the founder of the publishing company, Sullivan Street Press ( She is also the impressario of the Itinerant Book Show as well as the program director of the REZ Reading Series in Kew Gardens, NY. Her (more...)
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