When I speak in defense of the book, I often find myself avoiding any discussion of my current vocation. Even in the classroom, where it’s obvious to my students what I do, because I am doing it right there in front of them, I find myself apologizing, offering caveats, soft-shoe-sashaying away from the obvious: Dude, you’re an English teacher. Of course you like books and think everyone should read them.
It’s as if English teachers are a rare species: readerus boringus maximus. Some kids boldly proclaim their disdain for the printed word. “I don’t read,” they crow, “Why would I read a book when there are plenty of them made into movies?” When I discuss allegory, I always bring up C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and ask the class who has read it, or perhaps had it read to them when they were little. At first, there is a sprouting of hands, but then their brains process the word, “read,” and palms drift down like wilting dandelions. Heads turn to each other, eyes quizzical. A question mutters around the room, “There was a book?”
With the Vegas Valley Book Festival approaching—it runs Nov 3-6 at venues across the Valley—it seems a fitting time to ask a frightening question: Are books going extinct like polar bears on the ice floes of our cerebellum? Is their death simply the evolution of our species? Is this the end of the literary line—from oral tradition to calligraphic manuscript to printed-and-bound pages to the whimper of electrons trying to find a place between Angry Birds and Twittering banalities?
I hope not. Certainly the education community hopes it ain’t so. The Common Core Standards for English/Language Arts—now that’s literature—emphasizes that students who meet the standards are those who “actively seek the wide, deep and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience and broadens worldviews.”
I challenge you to translate this deathless prose into inspiration for the 218 high school sophomores that squeeze through my 30-by-30-foot classroom every weekday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Maybe a better path to inspiration is to somehow convey to the kids that, as Yann Martel writes in Beatrice and Virgil, “we are story animals.”
And so I dance, I stand on chairs, I stretch myself across the tables of the inattentive, I stride and pace and shake my fist and beg these kids to understand that writers never compose short stories, novellas, novels, plays or poetry to have them analyzed by 15-year-olds preparing for standardized tests. They write because they want to share something with the world. Shakespeare did not write Romeo and Juliet in the 16th century to torture high school students in the 21st. Orwell did not write 1984 to piss off high school seniors. Those writers, like millions of other storytellers in the history of our species, wrote because they had a story that needed telling, a play that needed to be performed, a warning to pass along. I look in the eyes of the girl with too much makeup and too little self-esteem and tell her that a good piece of fiction tells us truths about ourselves we would never otherwise understand.
Books put their arms around us and help carry us over the inevitable. They provide the gentle, slow companionship of those who have been there already. Books are permanent group therapy writ large across the face of centuries. Their characters confide moments of weakness, the rush of power and crush of defeat. They provide us a crowd of people who have fought, despaired and desired, who have wondered and wandered, lost something and found it again. Books, with their slow comfortable burn, allow us time to realize something fundamental: While the broad themes of our lives are the same, there are 6 billion variations. Each variation arrives when we need it and, more importantly, when we don’t know we need it.
Books are a unique form of public intimacy. Their stories contain the secrets of other lives, stories we find surprisingly coincidental with ours. Within pages deceptively bland in appearance we find a common humanity that transcends colorful flags and melanin count. It is no accident that Pol Pot turned a murderous eye on the literate.
I find it unthinkable to predict the book’s demise. We need them now as we have always needed them. We need them in these foreclosed times, in the face of tsunamis and the killing spasms of tyrants and their gods. We need them for the intimate, personal perspective they offer of characters who have also suffered market collapse, disaster and revolution. We need them in the face of betrayal and to corral our own base instincts.
And so, as I urge my students, I urge all of us to pick up a book. Read it. Then stop at that moment when you have read the very last word. Cherish it. Let the book close slowly on your lap, tilt your head back. Close your eyes. Let the writer lie next to you, an intimate stranger.