We live in an age where there is a vast multitude of ways to entertain ourselves. Of the hundreds of channels on TV, most run programming twenty-four hours a day. Newspapers are delivered daily to households across the world; the internet never turns off. And of course, there are books. According to the American Library Association, in the United States alone there are over 117,000 libraries. “Since 1776, 22 million titles have been published”, and as of 2004, there were over 2.8 million books in print (Para Publishing).
What’s the point? In terms of technology (and in this day and age, what isn’t looked at in terms of technology?), books are outdated. An old, slow, difficult way of obtaining information and entertainment that only isolates people from the ‘mainstream’. With the popularity of websites like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, it’s evident that society currently embraces more social forms of amusement than perusing a novel generally provides.
What is it about books that continue to capture our attention? It’s clear that the book’s allure has not diminished in this age of technology. Millions of people read the final installment of the Harry Potter series, but refuse to see the movies. What do books provide that none of the countless other media forms can?
When you open a page on the net, your eyes are never the first to see it. It is obvious and expected. When you pay your eight dollars to go see a movie, you’re never alone in the theater. Packed tight into plush seats, the movie is viewed by a group full of strangers simultaneously. It is built for mass consumption. However, when you open the pages of a book, the illusion of discovery is there. Much like Cárdenas (as referred to in Walker Percy’s famous essay), the pages lie open to us—a fresh, untouched discovery. It doesn’t matter that it was published over fifty or a hundred years ago. It is to the reader an unexplored Eden where they are the only inhabitants.
Richard Rodriguez speaks in his autobiography of his first connection with books. “I sat there and sensed for the very first time some possibility of fellowship between a reader and a writer, a communication, never intimate like that I heard spoken words at home convey, but one nonetheless personal” (Rodriguez). Books seem to speak to us and us alone, and we are allowed to make our own decisions about what the stories, the style, and the characters, mean to us.
On the other hand, Rodriguez also demonstrates what many other readers may feel – at least those whose first and most lasting experiences were reading for (and only for) the classroom. “When I read William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, I was immediately pleased by the narrator’s warmth and the charm of his story. But as quickly I became suspicious. A book so enjoyable to read couldn’t be very ‘important.’…I loved the feeling I got after the first hundred pages-of being at home in a fictional world where I knew the names of the characters and cared about what was going to happen to them… I never knew how to take such feelings seriously, however. Nor did I suspect that these experiences could be part of a novel’s meaning” (Rodriguez). How many times have we overheard a student saying that they only like to read books that aren’t “assigned”? Percy might say that they are rebelling against the educational package that the book is presented in. Sensing the fact that the book is not being taught in its true form, the average student shies away from it entirely. For these people, the more connections a book makes to their emotions, the less inclined they will be to enjoy it.
When we sit in a darkened theatre and watch a movie flicker by on the screen, we are cognizant of the crowd. Aware of the fact that at the same exact moment, you are meant to experience the same thing as the stranger next you. The movie is made, not to be pleasing to each of us individually, at our own pace, but to the crowd, the mob of those desperate to be entertained.
The urge to read books could be called a selfish urge. The desire to have a world of people all to ourselves, even if just for an instant. The freedom to find our own meaning when it becomes apparent to us, not when the dramatic music swells to signal the time for an appropriate emotion.
“ALA Library Fact Sheet 1.” ALA: American Library Association. 2007. American Library Association. 1 Nov 2007 <http://www.ala.org/ala/alalibrary/libraryfactsheet/alalibraryfactsheet1.cfm>.
Poytner, Dan. “Statistics.” Para Publishing. 2004. Para Publishing. 1 Nov 2007 .
Rodriguez, Richard. “The Achievement of Desire.” The Achievement of Desire. 05 Nov 2007. Henry M. Jackson High School. 5 Nov 2007 <http://www.everett.k12.wa.us/CMS/cmsSites/cmsUserFiles/jacksonhigh/nnicoletta/files/The%20Achievement%20of%20Desire.doc>.
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