Libraries, books, and education

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent. ― Henry David Thoreau

Now here is a piece of good news. According to Gallup polling, visiting the local library remains, by far, the most common cultural activity Americans engage in. It’s nice to know Amazon hasn’t yet put libraries out of business!

For the most part, I think libraries have remained relevant in the cultural landscape because Librarians have adapted to the changing times fairly well: Bringing in advanced technologies—computers, Wifi, digital, etc, etc,—and continuing to be innovative in sponsoring various events at their libraries that attract young families. So let us applaud the librarians and the local government officials who’ve continued to support them at budget time.

With that said, I’ll add that while it’s encouraging to see how well libraries are doing, it would be even more encouraging if we knew Americans were actually reading more good books. The Gallup poll tells us that Libraries are being used and visited, but that doesn’t mean Americans—especially adults—are actually reading more quality books. The jury is still out on this one.

For example, when visiting my local library I notice all the computers are usually taken up by someone researching (or surfing). I notice people in the various conference rooms, and I usually see a few young families with small children walking the book aisles or sitting in the children’s area looking through a stack of books. But typically I don’t see a lot of adults checking-out or turning-in stacks of quality history, biography, or science books. Of course I’ll note that I have no idea how many adults check-out books via digital audio or print, which can be done online. So maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.

But then maybe it’s just me, but I don’t detect in a lot of people’s conversations that a lot of deep reading about complicated subjects, or the biographies of great men or women, or ideas in general, are something they do regularly…or at all. And I completely understand that some people may not care for reading—tragic though that may be. Maybe they’re just not interested or too busy. What people do with their time is their prerogative.

I just tend to feel that a democracy—especially one that’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people“—is hard to maintain when a sizable amount of the population appears to be terribly uninformed or just plain ignorant about the nation’s history, government, policies, social challenges, or things like basic science. We can’t properly defend our own or our family’s self interests, better yet the nation’s, if we don’t understand enough to know whether the choices we’re making are actually serving ours or our nation’s interests at all. Many of us, for example, vote for policies or people that are in direct opposition to our interests.

A lot of us uncritically adopt the opinions of others—from our family, group, favorite media source, or some other talking head on TV. But the measure of our own education and personal freedom is when we get to a point where we can intelligently challenge (openly or in own mind) our relied upon sources of information—by weighing and analyzing in light of our own personal readings and observations and then being able to change our mind on a topic or cherished belief….and then having the courage to say it.

Knowledge and education, of course, aren’t a guaranteed cure human folly, prejudice, or our politics. Only a fool who hasn’t read History could honestly think that. Educated people can be just as willing as anyone else to ignore their conscience, twist facts, and advance deep seated prejudices.

But what deep and focused reading can potentially do is introduce us to ideas and thoughts that may gradually crack our caked prejudices and inherited world views and open us to the idea that maybe what we’ve believed all along may be wrong or misinformed or at least in need of some updating. That maybe we need to rethink some of our beliefs about people, your society, and the world.

I should add, that along with quality books and literature, Art in general typically aims at doing this, especially serious films and other performing arts. They can expand our ability to empathize with others—open us to feeling our shared humanity. Note, that’s one big reason authoritarian rulers immediately shut down writers and artists when they take over. Genuine Art is subversive in the authoritarian’s world view.

And then, of course, I can’t leave out, the reading of books that elevate our cognitive grasp. As we read about science and the methods of scientists and the incredible amount of experimentation and research put into their findings, we learn how successful the scientific approach to knowledge has been in promoting human flourishing and, in the long run, democracy itself. As we look back through history we see that science and democracy tend to rise together—a phenomenon to be discussed at length in another post, eventually. With an education in science (reading science books) we learn to think more systematically, more scientifically in other words, about things and ideas and the opinions of others. And that’s a good thing.

And so I’ll close with encouraging you to go to the library, check-out books, or buy books at the store, and then read those books whenever you can. Hopefully you’ll learn, grow, see and feel more deeply.

That’s what being truly educated is all about.

Instruments of Self-Exploration

IMG_1120Over the past few days my wife and I have been painting my book room and boxing up books. A lot of books! Anyway, my wife, having superior organizing skills, and an app for that, scanned bar codes and marked boxes so it would be far easier to find a particular book later on. Of course, I slowed the progress. I would go along handing her book after book and then suddenly stop mid stream. I’d stare wistfully at a book and begin to thumb through it, rereading underlined passages, remembering the thoughts and feelings I’d had when I had first read it. I know, just pathetic. Looking at all these books I started wondering, just for a moment, what my love for books and reading over all these years had really done for me.

As I stood there wondering, of course, I reached for a book I’d read (about books and reading) that just happen—naturally—to be right in front of me. I opened it and the first passage I’d underlined in pencil read:

We turn to books in the hope of better understanding our selves and better engaging with the meaning of our experiences. Let me say, right off, that I believe a work of art is primarily concerned with the creation of beauty, whether through words, colors, shapes, sounds, or movements. But it is impossible to read serious novels, poetry, essays, and biographies without also growing convinced that they gradually enlarge our minds, refine our spirits, make us more sensitive and understanding. In this way, the humanities encourage the development of our own humanity. They are instruments of self-exploration.

— Michael Dirda, Book by Book

I like the way Dirda worded the above passage. At best, all a love for books and reading can do is encourage the development of our own humanity. It’s up to each of us to allow that to happen. And that, my dear reader, is the project of a lifetime.

The Hardcover Book is Holding Its Own

804379812-612x612Now here is some good news. In this age of digital dominance, it’s good to see that printed book sales are holding their own. That’s what PWC Global is reporting.

Initially, books downloaded and read on an Amazon Kindle or some other electronic device, when they became popular, seem to put a dent in printed book sales. This had some sad consequences for bookish store types like me. I think of Borders books. It closed down nationwide in 2011 and that really hurt because, at least in my area, Borders was the only real competitor to Barnes & Noble Booksellers. I actually liked Borders a little better—because it always seemed to have a better selection on hand, and a better coffee shop to boot. Of course now B&N is really the only bookish place, besides maybe a public library, I can go to enjoy browsing and indulging in a little bookish culture and being around my fellow bibilophiliacts.

I don’t currently have an Amazon Kindle or B&N Nook or any other digital book e-reader device (though I do have the Kindle app on my iPhone that I’ve never used). My wife actually bought me a Nook e-reader about 5 years ago but I never used it, so, being the professional ebayer she is, she sold it. Initially, I thought I could use an e-reader, but the allure of a physical book has a strong hold on me. I love the smell of a new hardcover book—preferably with deckled edges—and the tactile feel of the book, of turning the pages, and having the physical book on my bookshelf. For now, I’m an incurable preferrer of printed books. And so I book on, born back ceaselessly upon the bookstore aisles, browsing for another book.

Good Literature Makes the Reader “Move With” the Characters

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” — George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Sometimes when I’m reading a good book I pause for a moment to think over a very insightful passage or section I’ve just completed. Something I’m sure all serious readers do. For me, the writer has connected a number of ideas and has set my mind to work reflecting on its larger significance. This, for me, is what true education is about. From time to time, I write my reflections in a journal or jot a note on a piece of paper and insert it in the back of the book. Recently, while going through some books in my bookroom, I found a piece of paper, a reflection, folded in the back of a biography I’d read years ago with the following written on it:

It is human personality that most interest us. All through the great writings of classical authors we are most moved by greatly drawn characters. The result of characters bumping up against circumstance and how individuals respond, this is what makes literature so powerful and meaningful. Think of Plutarch, Dickens, and Twain, these authors bring characters to life on the page. They live in our mind, if only briefly, sharing, in some sense giving us the experience of their emotions, their hopes, and their tragedies. We move with them. We learn through a process of association and empathy. Feeling—empathically—what has happened to others allows us to connect with people across time and space. We share in their humanity. We learn. It is through this process that we can hold hands with the past.

A Bookshop Education

Every person has two educations, one which he receives from others, and one, more important, which he gives to himself. — Edward Gibbon

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Riverby Books on Capitol Hill

John Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, once wrote: “Life is one long lesson in humility.” It’s one of my favorite quotes, because it’s confirmed almost every day. Of course I’ve learned—and re-learned—a lot of other lessons along the way. And so while humility is one of the core lessons of life, I recently got to thinking about where, and by what means, I learned all the other stuff that’s served to confirm just how important humility plays in the scheme of one’s life.

If I had to list the main sources of my education, I would put them as follows: 1) bookstores, 2) periodicals, & 3) schools. (Note: Libraries are the archives of civilization and very important, but for me, my primary experience with them was at school.)

Starting from the end of the list, let me be candid and say I was a lousy student growing up. After getting the basics in reading, writing, and math in primary school (God has a special place for Elementary school teachers), I pretty much checked out mentally during my secondary school years. Socialization is an important part of any education, and I feel confident my scores were rather high in that area, but unfortunately that proficiency wasn’t part of my grade point average. So, after a less than stellar showing, pathetic really, in High School, I decided my best option was to enlist in the military move on to college. Even if I wasn’t exactly college material at the time, it just seemed the best alternative over getting a full time job.

It was a community college luckily, so they pretty much had to take me. I can’t say I made the honor roll, but I was in the running—a close, razor thin 50 point margin—so at least I was improving. Sloooowly but surely, however, I was discovering what truly interested me—if only I could making a living with it! The history, literature, and philosophy classes confirmed my intrinsic interest in the humanities. Great! So poverty would be my lot! Okay, so I actually did fairly well in those classes. In others words, I liked the subjects that caused the typical tuition paying parent to say: “And what are you going to do with a degree in…”.

More importantly, at community college I adopted strategic patience, which entailed taking my sweet ass time getting through community college…i.e. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and was drifting between an extension of my teenage years, rotating between part-time and full-time school attendance, and searching for a career while working on-and-off at my dad’s company. It goes almost without saying, but I will, my community college years went well beyond the typical 2 year period. It was truly a time of drifting, hoping for something to come along.

But there was a bright ray of sunshine that pierced those cloudy, horizonless, years. My professional community college years would lead to the chance meeting of my future wife, Melissa, in Doctor Jones’s history class. Of course I ended up doing lousy in that class—odd for a guy who loves history I realize—because I spent most of the class time passing notes (we didn’t have cellphones) with Melissa. For this reason alone, I wouldn’t change anything from my community college years. Nothing. I’ve failed at many things in life, but meeting my future wife as a result of my foolishness turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Well eventually I took a job—before completing college—and got married to my soulmate. Of course, like so many people who don’t complete their degree and enter the work force, I told myself I would like to finish what I’d started and so I spent years looking into various programs hoping to complete my BS degree. No one in my immediate family had gotten their college degree, so there was the added desire of being the first—it was also about pleasing my wonderful parents who’d done so much for me. Eventually, about 9 years (yeah, it took me awhile) into my career, I went back to college. It’s amazing how much more focused you are when you’re married and already have a career—I think it’s called the maturing process actually. I completed my BS degree (with honors) and ultimately went on to get a graduate degree (MS) from Johns Hopkins University. Considering how my college career had begun, it was a real high point in my life to walk in a commencement for my graduate degree from such a prestigious institution.

With all this said, while I enjoyed my later college years, and enjoyed learning “how to think,” and loved the colleges I attended, if I’d had to rely on just my formal schooling I’d be in poor shape educationally speaking. In large part, my education has come from the writers of essays, quality magazines, and books. My love for reading is mostly responsible for the expansion of my mental world—and continues to be. Continue reading “A Bookshop Education”