Friday, February 02, 2007

Are Books Losing Out or Not?

Are books doomed to ultimate extinction or are they still going strong? Two recent articles I've found highlight different sides of the ongoing debate:

Lament from a Librarian: Books are a Hard Sell: In this article, a high school librarian bemoans two things: (1) the change of focus for librarians (from book-centric to all-media-centric, from educating readers about critical thinking and content to education about how to sort through information); and (2) the increasing challenge of getting high-school level readers to be interested in reading literature that's helpful for training their minds, but more difficult to read.

Obama's books drive talk of '08 presidential run: This article highlights the idea that publishing recent, popular books has helped Barack Obama in his potential bid for the American presidency, and that sales numbers of the books by candidates might be one way to view which nominee might win the party nominations. The idea underlying this article is that books and their contents definitely have an influence on public opinion.

My thoughts: I'll try not to blather on too much about my opinion (I have a sense this post could go on forever), but my sense is that, although both sides have a point, I agree more with the points made by the latter article. We're quick these days to bemoan the passing of books, but yet sales of books continue strong, reading groups are a big trend across North America, and, as Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson pointed out her talk at the Festival of Faith and Writing last spring, attendances at readings and lectures are up around the country.

It's true that we should watch carefully the effects of the information age on us: we should work hard to seek depth over breadth in a world that seeks to manage the overload by seeking to reduce things to soundbites. We should push against this pressure to do lots of things quickly, but none of them well. We should be aware of this tendency that's growing within ourselves and our culture to desire to have everything presented to us in a way that appeals to us. And we should be teaching the next generation about these trends.

But it encourages me that people are seeking to read the books of presidential nominees. It shows that many people aren't happy with the soundbites they get in the nauseating TV ads and other less-than-satisfactory ways of judging what the candidate actually thinks on a topic. They're seeking more depth, more transparency, and they're willing to put in the hours needed to discriminate among the candidates. And that gives me hope for the political process as well as for the culture of literacy as a whole. That hope may not continue until the next presidential election, but for now it's encouraging.

On a related note, I'll confess that I'm nearly as excited as everyone else that the new Harry Potter book is coming out this July, and just as nervous about what will happen to the characters in this last book in the series--a series that may not be high literature, but is fascinating, not least because it's effectively persuaded non-readers to make their way through thousands of pages to finish the saga...

(Thanks to Cindy for sending me the first link.)

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