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Commentary: Can't Live Without Books

By Chris Mackowksi

St. Bonaventure, NY – "I cannot live without books," wrote Thomas Jefferson in an 1815 letter to his friend and fellow Founder, John Adams. Both men were voracious readers and counted their personal libraries among their most cherished possessions.

Adams once counseled his son John Quincy to always carry a book with him in case he had a spare moment to read. "You'll never be alone with a poet in your pocket," the elder Adams told his son.

Jefferson and Adams could not live without their books, and neither can I. But apparently a growing majority of Americans can get along without them just fine.

A recently released Associated Press-Ipsos poll says one in four adults didn't read a single book last year.

Zero. Zilch. Zip. Nada.

That this poll came out shortly after the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which shattered all kinds of book-buying records and had people behaving like teenage girls at a Beatles concert, was not lost on me. It seemed like everyone in America (including me) scarfed up that book but apparently, only three out of four Americans scarfed it up.

A lot of big-brained people who are smarter than I am have offered a multitude of reasons for America's poor reading habits. TV is the obvious scapegoat. We could blame the internet, too, for good measure.

But the news hardly comes as a surprise to people in the publishing world. Fewer readers means publishers are making fewer dollars. In response, publishers tend only to publish safe works, with a heavy emphasis on established writers, leaving less room for new authors to break into the market. The overall selection of books becomes more homogenous which, in turn, tends to drive away a certain segment of the book-buying public. That leaves fewer readers, and that leads to....

You see where I'm going.

America's poor reading habits are also no surprise to the newspaper industry. For the past decade, newspaper readership across the country has continued to slip. As circulation drops, newspapers begin to cut their staffs. (In an age when local newspapers can provide one thing no other form of media can in-depth local coverage newsroom cuts make it impossible to provide the very thing that would help a newspaper thrive...but that's a topic for another day.)

I realize I'm probably preaching to the choir since public radio listeners tend to be readers, as well. You know how important reading is, how satisfying it is, how enjoyable it is.

Reading a book, in particular, provides its own unique joys. I like the small heft of a book in my hands, the smooth feel of a slick dust jacket, the crinkle of the page as I turn it.

I've been reading as long as I can remember. I taught myself by reading the Incredible Hulk comic books. But the earliest reading experience I can remember that left an indelible mark on me happened in my early teens. My mother's father was hospitalized at St. Francis Hospital in Olean, and while the family held vigil, I went to the top-floor solarium with a book. It was Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," arguably the greatest novel in American history. Melville had me at the first line, "Call me Ishmael." I read the book straight through.

Since then, books have been my own white whale. I have pursued them relentlessly. They symbolize for me all that is magnificent and powerful and wonderful in the world. Fortunately, I've never had a book bite my leg off and leave me hobbling around on a peg like Ahab but there have been plenty of books that have grabbed a hold of me and never let go. Even now, long after I've read them, those books remain with me. That's what good books do.

Mostly, I feel sorry for those people who don't read. After all, an unfortunate number of people can't read and wish they could. And, as Mark Twain once observed, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't."

People who don't read miss out on a book's ability to stimulate thinking, to explore new perspectives, to inspire the imagination. Saddest of all, they don't even know the pleasure they're missing (even if they think they do).

The canvas bag I take with me to work has Jefferson's words emblazoned across the front. I cannot live without my books. But as the publishing industry is discovering, many other people can live without books. The question, really, is whether books can live without people.

Listener-Commentator Chris Mackowski is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

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