The seductiveness of books

Mike Golby and I have known each other online for such a long time – I can’t even remember when I first read him, and he first read me. The similarities we share make a piquant counter-point to the differences.

We don’t always agree, but among the many topics we do agree on is our love of books, and the importance of access to them. Mike recently talked about Blog Africa and this organizations efforts to increase Internet access across Africa, something to be applauded. But both he and I would rather see more of a global effort to provide open and adequate libraries than free email:

Many will tell you Africa needs books a damned side more than it needs a Net unable to do more than carry e-mail. Our libraries, where they exist (and this is locally), are under funded. Their budgets are non-existent. New books? Fuggedaboudit. In countries where books – of any kind – are considered a luxury, what chance connectivity? The cost of books is my chief expense for spending so much on being linked to the Web.

It’s in the nature of our new global economy that we foster illiteracy and ignorance. In a world run by technology, the less people know of the cause of their poverty, the better. Institutional economics is, by nature, a conservative discipline. Managed and promoted by conservative ideologues, it’s better served by people incapable of thinking for themselves. Books and the education they give are known for the trouble they bring.

I wrote in comments at Mike’s that if everyone had access to an open and well stocked library and the ability to read, most of the world’s problems would go away. But then I look at my own stack of books that I’ve gathered together to spend December reading (or re-reading in the case of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”):

  • “Unless”, by Carol Sheilds, recommended by Yule Heibel
  • “Moral politics : what conservatives know that liberals don’t “, by George Lakoff, recommended in comments
  • “Metaphors we Live By”, also by George Lakoff, mentioned by Joe Duemer
  • “The Floating Girl”, by Sujata Massey, mentioned at a weblog (can’t remember where)
  • “The Dark Valley: A Panorma of the 1930’s” by Brendon Piers, mentioned in a weblog posting by Jonathon Delacour
  • “Stranger Shores” and “White Writing” by J.M. Coetzee, author recommended by Farrago and Mike Golby
  • “Let us Now Praise Famous Men”, James Agee and Walker Evans, recommended by Jonathon, as well as Sheila Lennon
  • “The Secret Life of Bees”, by Sue Monk Kidd, recommended by Elaine, I believe
  • “Barran Ground” and “The Woman Within”, by Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow, pointed out by link in an email.

My reading for the last year has been someone mentioning a book and me using my Library’s online system to have it pulled from whatever branch and sent to mine. And if I can’t find a book in the city library system, I also have a card for the County library system, and all of these libraries have inter-library loan access to other systems. I have free and easy access to virtually most books I could ever want to read.

(Except for Dorothea Brande’s, Becoming a Writer. I’ve been looking for this in library systems for months.)

Now let’s look at some of the dates these books were last checked out. Oh, not the popular current ones such as “Unless”, “Secret Life of Bees”, and “The Floating Girl” – but the less famous ones, the quiet ones.

The last time “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” was checked out was December of last year. I was the person who checked it out. “The Dark Valley”? That goes back to May of 2002. Now Coetzee just won the Nobel Prize in Literature and you would think his work would be in demand, but “White Writing” was last checked out in 2001, and “Stranger Shores”, had never been checked out by anyone until me.

A well stocked library won’t make a bit of difference if people don’t or won’t take the time to read. According to Dave Rogers even if they did, it may not make a difference. Daring to “poke the dog” by quoting him:

Never before have we had the ready, easy access to the thoughts of great minds that we do today. Presumably, people even read it! Yet we still bicker about the “anger industry” and mock the people we disagree with, and justify ourselves and demonize our opponents. If all we needed to do was “read” to “learn,” shouldn’t we be living in Utopia about now? Why are there so many different self-help books out there?

I absolutely and unequivocally despise self-help books, so I can’t answer Dave’s question, but me thinks it’s rhetorical anyway.

Having access to libraries and reading important books by great writers is not going to result in change in our society if all we do is ‘read’ and then not respond differently in how we live our life, based on that reading. Consuming all those books on my list won’t do me a bit of good other than to perhaps impress people with how ‘well-read’ I am, unless I come away from the reading a different, hopefully better, person and act accordingly.

Good writing entertains, enlightens, enriches us, and brings us closer to (pick one) a) God, b) ourselves, c) our significant others, d) our foes, or or e) all of the above. But great writing in the hands of an open mind partnered with an active spirit, well, it’s better than a kick in the butt.

If I’ve read Dave correctly, we have to act on what we read; we have to work to make the world better, we can’t just read about it and congratulate ourselves on our literary achievements. Additionally, we can’t depend on technology to make the difference for us, either:

My point is, by focusing any attention on technology as some means of facilitating learning, or “changing everything” as some answer to anything, simply continues to obscure the real goddamn point. It’s as if we seem to think that once we have achieved the right technology, somehow our minds will be liberated and we’ll be able to “know” all these great things. When it has absolutely, positively, without question, NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with TECHNOLOGY. You need exactly NO technology to start asking yourself the kinds of questions you need to be asking yourself.

WHEN, in God’s name, are you going to start? When you’ve perfected your technology? When you’ve read enough weblogs? When your bandwidth is wider? When gender bias goes away? When a democrat is back in the White House? When you’ve “simplified” your life? What life? You think you’re alive? How do you friggin’ well know?

I could be flippant and say I know I’m alive because I wouldn’t dream up this sore mouth, but Dave’s point is extremely well made – we could wait for external events to happen from now until the dawn of time, and read every book written, and make sure everyone in the world has a blog and an RSS feed – but change begins within.

Trust me, I know these things.

(And now I’ve managed to bring the views of three passionate writers into one essay. This page will self-destruct in a ball of fire in five minutes.)

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