What Happens When Homes Have No Books

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.

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38 responses to “What Happens When Homes Have No Books

  1. I’ve been an avid reader since the 4th grade. I read non-fiction/fiction 20:1. I prefer reading to all other forms of entertainment and learning. I wouldn’t be able to fathom a world without books. I could get along fine in a world without TV & movies, but not books.

  2. “Yes, but what happens when these peasants HAVE books??!? They might get to thinking differently than we wish them to, or some such! Who would we control, then??” said the Digital Tech/Political Elite.

    1. Why did the british in Ireland and the slaveowners in the South keep their chattel illiterate ?? And unarmed ??

    2. My twin daughters’ favorite scene in (ironically) a children’s movie:

      Gaston [grimacing]: “It’s not right for a woman to read! Soon she starts getting ideas … thinking …”
      Belle {smiles]: “Why, Gaston — you are positively primeval.”
      Gaston [brightening]: “Oh, why thank you Belle!”

      That was nearly five years ago and they still find that exchange hilarious. It also solidified for them — far more than anything else — why Gaston was the villain.

  3. I don’t get it. Don’t you have a Kindle? If anything, it’s my impression that because of the Web, there is a lot more reading going on now than there was in the 70s or 80s. Yes, books as physical objects are wonderful. But this notion that without physical books we are all Francies is, I think, more than a bit of a stretch.

    1. Not really. Part of the problem with electronic access is attention span: web readers expect everything to be distilled down to a few – or just a couple of – paragraphs. They simply do not have the patience – or, they claim, the time – to wade through 100, 200 pages of text.

      When I moved from Mississippi (ex-Air Force) to Texas, I packed two duffle bags of clothes, a bicycle… and about two cubic meters of books. Today, the walls of my living room and bedroom are lined with bookshelves, in addition to a terabyte drive nearly filled with downloaded books and documents.

      Project Gutenberg is your friend.


      1. Project Gutenberg is invaluable. I can’t speak with certainty, but nearly every great work that has fallen out of copyright protection can be found there.

    2. A reader cannot mark up a Kindle . Reading should be active engagement with the author and the text and the reader , the active reader , should read pen in hand . Pull down any of your old texts and see what you thought interesting reading Gatsby at 18 and what is of note some years later .

      1. Yes, you can mark up a Kindle. They have the functionality to highlight and include comments on any passage, phrase or word you want to memorialize.

        1. Absolutely, Mike, not to mention the ability to find the definition of a word (or phrase) with the touch of a finger, a feature that has become to me like a microwave, hard to live without 🙂 .As for active engagement with an author, Jay, it is today quite literally the case with ebooks as a result of so many writers being self published and accessible via most tablets and readers.

    3. How often do you enjoy listening to your 8-track tapes? How about your cassettes? Any files on floppy disks you use regularly?

      How long do you think that files for your Kindle will be available? Or how long do you think your Kindle will last? But I can read a book that my grandfather bought, and my grandchild will be able to read that same book. The dead-tree format is old, but it’s built to last.

    4. I do have and use a kindle. I have found that, especially for books I am using for study, that the retention just isn’t there for some reason. I end up buying actual books anyway. I also find that my kids don’t like reading on the Kindle. I keep the Kindle for portability and for all of the free books that I have not been able to afford to buy yet. Did you know that nearly all the classics, tons of history and theology are available for free. So, no, I don’t own hard copies of Summa Theologica – my Kindle version will have to do until I can buy the “real thing”.

    1. ‘I find TV very educational . When anyone turns on the set , I go to another room and read a book ‘: Marx , Groucho

  4. Look at the books they assign our kids in high school and middle school. Instead of ennobling books with great stories of heroes fighting for good against evil, they get dystopian views, and a sense of moral ambivalence.

    Looking at the books they are assigned and the assigned thinking program otherwise known as worksheets, it seems the intent is to suck the joy of reading from them and impress a Marxist world view on them.

        1. I taught HS English for twelve years . I taught whatever I wanted , from The Scarlet Letter to The Master and Margarita . The young folks loved it . Of course , it was one of those old line New England prep schools , you know , ‘the best that has been thought and said ‘. But it can be done .

          1. I was complaining about the book selection to my son’s teacher and she was saying that the curriculum was set by committee and she was required to use what they said.

          2. If you don’t like what they have to read, give them the gift of books you think will contribute to a love of books and reading.

          3. I realize this is a huge problem. I’ve sat on school boards, I’ve taught, I’ve parented. My response to what the bureaucrats do – or don’t do, is to provide books – either gifting, or keeping the bookshelves filled, or by going to the library with my kids – who are now grown and doing the same with their kids. Plus the library here has reading programs in the summer and over holidays that challenge the children and entice the children to continue to read and enjoy the process.
            Our school board meetings are open and are televised. So many parents are now requesting time to speak and those complaints and queries and suggestions are more known to the city and to parents who watch or attend those meetings. Maybe you can enlist some other like-minded parents to join you and confront your own school board.
            My kids are now grown and with their own children. I notice more books than we ever had. The children ask constantly to be read to and the 5 y/o is trying to teach herself to read so that she can read to her baby sister (and to herself). I thank my own mother who was nothing if not an avid reader.

  5. Don’t buy your kids books. Take them to the library regularly, at least every two weeks. Buying books limits their reading to what’s at home. The library expands their reading to what’s in the library. Make sure they know how to search for books in the library’s computer system. Then leave them alone.

    1. Or do both. My kids both have shelves and shelves of books at home to look at, but they still like going to the library to look for new favorites.

    2. I disagree. I think ownership of books means something to a child. It’s a personal commitment to reading. It gives them ownership of reading. I obviously endorse taking your kids to the library, but I think they should own books too.

      In fact, I would suggest giving your child a subscription to a magazine as a birthday or Christmas gift – one with more words than pictures, mind you. Now something to read shows up fresh every month and it’s not Mom and Dad’s, it THEIRS.

    3. I disagree. I am an avid reader as is my husband. Our home is filled with books, some were my mothers when she was a child. My children have their own library that grows constantly. They often pull down an old favorite to read to each other, or to look up favorite passages. Part of our monthly budget (we ditched cable/dish and spend the difference on books) goes to build our family library. Every gift giving occasion includes at least one book as a gift. The curriculum we use is heavily reliant on non-fiction and historical fiction. Whenever possible, I purchase two copies so that I can read what they are reading and we can talk about it. Our largest yearly expense outside of food, shelter, and savings is for books. Many of the books we use, we cannot even find at our local library. I also have a collection of rare and antique books.

      Our only problem is finding more places for book shelves as every room, hallway, nook and cranny includes floor to ceiling bookshelves .

    4. If you believe in the power of books, buy them, so that you can support writers. Being a writer is rarely profitable; writers make money (and get new book deals) off sales of their books. Buying books is a simple way to support authors and the humanities. If you enjoyed the story, next time, buy another title from that author. It can teach your child that books are a valuable investment of not only time, but money. If you get too many, donate them so that they can be resold to people who can’t afford to buy new. Supporting used books stores also supports community literacy. Being a library patron is great–do that too, but to say “don’t buy your kids books” is a strange edict. If you enjoy the arts, be a parton of the arts.

    5. 20 years ago, I would agree with you. Many libraries are doing away with books to give way to Audible accounts, massive DVD libraries, places for the kids to play Wii, stations to game on iPads, computers to check Facebook, and tech centers to create 3D printing projects. Are these bad things? No. They continue to serve the community. But they are not books. As more and more libraries continue to fill their shelves with “new” classics, the ramblings of vampire romance novels, and 3rd-grade chapter books about talking rectums, some of the most treasured classics are being sold in library sales. We buy books because you can no longer assume that your local library will have “Beowulf” or even the most treasured picture books like “Goodnight Moon.” Libraries are becoming community centers, not a home for books. And most have standards that require they dump anything that appears old or hasn’t been checked out in over a year. Our children are relying on the reading tastes of the past few years to dictate what’s available to them. I choose not to restrict my kids to what’s at the library. For what we spend on gas to our local library, we can gift the kids Amazon credits to buy used copies of what they want. And of course, when libraries “cull” their shelves to give way to the newest movie adaptations, we come home with boxes of treasures for our own library.

    6. To expand on my original comment which prompted so many replies (I’m flattered, by the way.).

      It is far more important for a child to develop the ability to find books she likes than for the child’s parents to buy books. In my day, this meant going to the library and stalking the shelves. I acquired favorite authors, traced down books by Authors who blurbed on the covers of books I liked. A 10-12 year old avid reader is reading over 150 books a year. To do this, the reader must have good search skills. Today, the young reader needs to be able to search for books on Amazon, read reviews, and perhaps look at literary blogs in order to find and enjoy 150 books a year. Most branch libraries today allow you to order books for delivery to your local branch. Does your child know how to do this? Different times.

      While parents enjoy choosing books for children (“hey, read this.”), It is better to let children choose their own books. I nervously watched my adolescent son devour 1000 page fantasy novels, hoping he’d read something more substantive. In college, his tastes matured without any prompting from me.

  6. On my 10th birthday several decades ago, my dad took me to a used-book store and told me I could have any book in the shop. I still remember the excitement and feeling of power that filled me when I left the store with two hardcover books. Until then, I thought only libraries — not ordinary people and certainly not kids — could own hardcovers. Best birthday ever.

  7. I come from a family of readers. I used to take the city bus to the library everyday after school and wait for my mom to come pick me up after work. I ran through so many of those books! I always remember enjoying reading, however I NEVER liked the books we had to read at school. You know: the classics. It’s not that I didn’t like them per-se, it’s just at that time, like between the ages of 14 and 18, the classics seem so dry and uninteresting. Even now as an adult, I don’t find many of the classics to be my taste of literature. Also, unfortunately, many of the classics have Caucasian main characters and the story lines don’t really coincide with the lives or interests of many ethnic teenagers, so it can be hard to kind of catch the interest of some students. There are sooooooo many books out there. I often wonder why we have kids read the same few classics over and over and over. Of course they are good and historical, but it would be nice to focus on modern classics or just modern books in general. Most youth exposure to books occurs in school (if their parents/families aren’t big readers) and if their only exposure is books like Emma, and The Works of Shakespeare and Of Mice and Men, I could understand why a large chunk of youth would not be interested in reading.
    I used to read lots of scary stories, and magazines while I was a youth. My mom hated that, but she let me read it because she said, “It doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you are reading something.” Thanks Ma!

  8. You may have to move a book to sit down in my house! LOL! I also own a Nook and I use it and my local libraries. I have been flying quite a bit lately and I was surprised this last time as I looked around many people were reading real books, not digital books. There is something about the smell and feel of a real book.

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