Carol Rasco, President of Reading is Fundamental, recently asked, “Can you imagine a childhood without books?”
Rasco’s piece noted that two-thirds of the country’s poorest children don’t own a single book. These children are little different than the character Francie, the poor girl living in the Williamsburg slums of New York in 1912, who has long captivated readers in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Francie, who commits herself to reading every book in the library, in alphabetical order—twice—starts copying one of her favorite books page-by-page because she is worried that the library might lose this favorite selection:
“She wanted to own a book so badly and she thought that copying it would do it. But the penciled sheets did not seem like nor smell like the library book so she had given it up, consoling herself with the vow that when she grew up, she would work hard, save money and buy every single book that she liked.”
A child without books is little different than a home without books. The bookless home is the logical consequence of a society that stops reading deeply. It is a state that has been imagined by some of history’s greatest science fiction writers. Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, for example, invites us into a society that investigates readers and burns down book-infested homes. In a 1993 introduction to his book (before the advent of the smartphone), Bradbury presciently pointed out that matches would never be needed to achieve a bookless world like the fictional one he had created. Killing off the hunger to read would do the job just as well (with far less smoke and mess) and be achieved by drowning everyone in a vacuum of empty noise, with no controversies, no opinions, no intellectuals:
“[Y]ou don’t have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with nonreaders, nonlearners and nonknowers? If the world wide-screen-basketballs and footballs itself to drown in MTV, no Beatty’s are needed to ignite the kerosene or hunt the reader. If the primary grades suffer meltdown and vanish through the cracks and ventilators of the schoolroom, who, after a while, will know or care?
Bradbury, who was too poor to go to college, understood that the case for books is partly about finding an economical way to fund dreams and build knowledge. He spent much of his childhood and early adult years in a library amassing an education shelf by shelf, instead of course credit by course credit. “Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends,” Bradbury said. “The things you’re looking for… are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.”
We are hardly the first generation to worry about towns without bookstores and homes devoid of books. In August 1919, a lifelong bookseller took to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly to write about “The Welfare of the Bookstore.” Evidently bookstores in New York had taken to selling stationary more prominently than bound volumes. The essay wondered who was to blame: Andrew Carnegie and his public libraries? The arrival of the motorcar and leisure time? The age of movies and the explosion of magazines?
Later that same year, H. Addington Bruce, writing in Baltimore & Ohio magazine, wondered about “Homes without Books,” noting that in many homes people relocated books in garrets and attics, tucking them away, out of sight and use. Bruce, like Francie, made the case that borrowing books wasn’t enough. “At least a few books of real worth must be constantly available. Otherwise, semi-starvation and flabbiness of the intellect are an almost certain result,” he cautioned. Even Taylor Swift sees the problem. Last month the pop star announced she was donating 25,000 books to New York City schools.
The disappearance of held objects of cultural and education significance is not limited to books today. A recent article in the New York Times noted that children no longer thumb through their parents old vinyl records—referred to as “artifacts”—because everything is streamed digitally:
But in our digital conversion of media…physical objects have been expunged at a cost. Aside from the disappearance of record crates and CD towers, the loss of print books and periodicals can have significant repercussions on children’s intellectual development.
The author points to a 2014 study that shows how a home library can have the single greatest impact on a child’s education: “Libraries matter even more than money; in the United States, with the size of libraries being equal, students coming from the top 10 percent of wealthiest families performed at just one extra grade level over students from the poorest 10 percent.”
The education reformer Horace Mann rightly said, “No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them.” Even if you can’t afford books, a library card, and the will to use it, is the only means necessary.
A forgotten professor in Bradbury’s dystopia, too afraid to challenge the new totalitarianism of illiteracy, declared:
“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that were once in books…Take it where you can find it. In old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one kind of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what the books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
Bradbury’s teacher, alas, is more wrong than right: yes, we treasure books because of the worlds they awaken for us. But I fear we may be forgetting—or denying—that books are the indispensible carriers of the things that count.