I like bookstores, especially when I feel like browsing or am not sure exactly what I want to read. There is a sense of mystery in browsing. As I look, I discover my own heart and mind. I discover what grabs my attention. When I am really awake, I walk into a bookstore and there, on the display table, is a book that answers some question that has been nagging me or fulfills some desire for adventure.
But bookstores are disappearing. The light they represent is winking out. Some evil force is stealing their light. Some might say this is a good thing. Another form of consumerism is gone. Another reason for cutting down trees is ended. I love trees and breathing, so I certainly would like to limit tree cutting.
But the loss of bookstores can lead to several negative results. An article in the New York Times called Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves, by Teddy Wayne, recently spoke to the negative consequences of this disappearance. Not only bookstores are disappearing, but books, records, CDs are disappearing in homes. Children today no longer get to see the musical or literary history of their parents displayed on their shelves or in their collections. Teddy Wayne cites research that supports the view that children who grow up without books in their homes are likely to not do as well in school—adjusting for economic and other factors (I presume).
There are still school and public libraries, outposts of adventure and wonder. Yet, they too are going more and more digital. Without a library of displayed choices to wander through that you can hold in your hand and explore, is it more difficult to know what is available and what is possible? I hope the new ebooks are as satisfying for other people as the paper ones are for me. Online the number of choices of what to read is so vast it can make it too easy to decide to simply read what’s popular and what your friends read. This can result in feeling the universe of choices narrowed to what is in vogue now. You easily feel alienated if what’s popular does not fit with who you think you are.
When school standards emphasize STEM subjects (math and science) and diminish literature and history, or emphasize nonfiction in English classes and reduce the reading of fiction, the same narrowing of focus in time and possibility can occur. Literature is not just a good story, not just a sideline to a good education. It is vitally important. It is an entrance into the lives, viewpoints, and possibilities exhibited by other people of distant time periods and cultures that could not be accessed as well any other way. History is not just a descriptive list of what happened in other places and times. It is a narration of the human mind and heart extended over vast periods of time. It reveals the roots of the present so the range of possible actions now and in the future are expanded. It also reveals how actions in the present create future situations and how what you think is possible shapes the range of political and social power you exercise. Without a sense of history, you can feel the problems of today have always been there, so why bother to act to change anything.
I was lucky. I grew up in a home filled with books and live now surrounded by them. I also grew up with a sense that each person has some responsibility for shaping the world we live in. I hope we don’t make the mistake of depriving our children of these opportunities and depriving them of a sense of empowerment and responsibility.