Tuesday, February 9, 2010

reading books

Once upon a time, in Kentucky, a small-town council voted down funding for the creation of a library. And one of the councilors explained his vote this way: "I own one book and it is enough."

I read this story on the news wires and was pretty much as flabbergasted at the reasoning as the news story implicitly expected me to be. Something in my mind rose up and sputtered with the utter disbelief of someone who is/was a true believer in some other faith: Education is important in the sense that it provides possibilities and reading is one useful tool in becoming educated.

But a part of what stopped me in my tracks about the story was that there was what struck me as a straight-ahead honesty in the councilor's remark. No one HAS to read books and some people get by very well without opening themselves in that particular format. There are all sorts of heart-felt and logical arguments I would and can make about education and reading, but the fact remains: No one HAS to read.

What brought this back to mind was a discussion I had yesterday with my 15-year-old son as I drove him home from school. As a dutiful, nagging parent, I asked him the one question he knew I would: "Do you have any homework?" And, yes, he did -- he had to do some reading for his English class. And what was he reading? "I dunno. Some book about this Spanish family." And then his reactions got the better of him. "I don't understand why they can't give us something interesting to read."

He said he liked to read when people didn't shove it down his throat, but he wanted to read something "good." And so we went over what he might consider "good" and I said that taste was taste, but even what was not "good" was one of the possibilities to consider and digest. He looked, even as I might have at his age, unconvinced. Why bother with what you didn't like?

So then I prattled a little more about reading being a good way to learn how to communicate and that no matter what profession or interest he might conceive in life -- from CEO to auto mechanic -- knowing how to communicate in ways that others would understand was important ... one of the keys to making a living/money. That was concrete and he could hear it, his face said.

And then, like any parent, I caught myself out in the apparent hypocrisy of my arguments. Here I was urging him to read books and yet I haven't read a book in I don't know how long. For much of my life, I read two or three books a week with the same absent, habituated attentiveness someone might bring to eating potato chips. Fiction books, non-fiction books, serious books, silly books ... tons and tons of books. When I sat in my living room and looked up at the book shelves, the spines of the books I had collected and read looked back at me like friends and allies. They were, in some sense, who I was and I was quietly grateful and felt confirmed in their presence. Thousands and thousands of books ... that's me ... or anyway that was me.

But maybe it's true in all matters: You learn the habit in as many aspects and specifics and particulars and depths as you can because ... well, because that seems to be your taste or choice or need or something. Anyway, you take on the habit and then ... and then all habits walk away. They lose their grip in part because they aren't that gripping any more. They are possibilities -- perhaps very good possibilities -- but they aren't necessities.

Reading, marriage, drug addiction, religious persuasion, collecting coins, learning Greek, profession, money, watching television, building a bird house, fighting a war ... as once you were gripped and enthralled and attentive, so now you are released. It's just a possibility whose intellectual or emotional or moral overlays are no longer so compelling or imperative.

I am not trying to convince anyone of anything, least of all a studied ignorance ... "I own one book and it is enough." It's just interesting how habits seem to walk away in their own time. The habit of having some habit is often so strong that replacing habit A with habit B can seem like an absolute necessity as part of a human life. Who would I be without one habit or another? Habits R Us ... or are they?

Certainly you'll never learn anything without some pedal-to-the-metal attention and investment of energy. Without some effort, superficiality leaves people gasping for air, some enriched oxygen, something beyond mere bias and generalities. But having dived into the twelve-foot end of whatever pool you choose, having swum the laps you consider enough ... doesn't there come a time when, well, you want to get out of the pool and enjoy the sunshine? Nothing saying you can't go back in if you choose, but nothing saying you have to go in either. It's possible. Just possible.

And aren't the possibilities the 'one book' anyone might read ... and enjoy?

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