The cultural connection to books

Today I read about a terrible decision Spokane, WA public schools made: to lay off all of their school librarians. In order to try to balance their budget, they are removing the unseen hand guiding young students through the wealth (and litter) of information modern society has made available to them.

As Americans, we also don’t read enough outside of our job or career any more. Scholarly book sales are on the decline. Heck, even popular books sales are on the decline, and that includes e-books. Whether or not the problem might be that we are all so busy trying to make a living, the issue is there. We no longer have a cultural connection to books, or even to the acquisition of knowledge in general.

These two facts connect so much of what has been happening in our society for the last 30 years or so: the disinterest in knowledge, and the inability to gauge the usefulness of information presented to us. I truly don’t believe that social media created our short attention spans, but the other way around: that social media was created as a response to our demand for just the bits of information that we need, outside of the context that takes too long for us to understand.

I consciously noticed this trend myself my first year teaching, over a decade ago. I’m a complete nerd, I’ll admit, but when none of my students have read anything I reference? (I make a lot of pop culture jokes based on books and movies). I started making lists of books I’ve read that I can remember the titles to. And then I asked my students (at the time, I wasn’t much more that 10 years older than the traditional undergraduate) to make their own lists. When I had over 400 books I can recall the titles to on my list, and they could barely come up with 20? I knew there was a problem. But how to address it?

Ted Striphas, Professor of Communication at the University of Colorado, has been blogging about the cultural connection to books for some time (https://www.tedstriphas.com/teaching/the-cultures-of-books-reading/). It’s fascinating how other cultures looks at books and reading. Did you know that the UK has the highest sales of non-fiction books per capita (in countries where we have stats available)? And in Iceland, it’s the tradition that on Christmas Eve, everyone gives each other a book, and your family spends the evening reading. https://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/jolabokaflod-meet-favorite-new-holiday-tradition/

I think I must be Icelandic.

So I started passing out lists of books I think my college students should read. Not those lists of “Books everyone should read before graduating college”, but books that I think are interesting and important. Books that can change your mind. Students responded well, though as it wasn’t an assignment, I have really no idea if they ever took up the list to actually read through. But, ever the optimist, I then started a hashtag on Facebook, #Pertermannbooklist, where I listed 50 of my favorite/important/mygodyouneedtoreadthisbook books.

Now it’s your turn. No, I don’t think this will “fix” the world. But, like Kris Kristofferson, I can’t believe that no one wants to know.

(In no precise order)

  1. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
  2. Feed by M.T. Anderson
  3. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
  4. How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev
  5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (It’s my favorite book of all time. Fight me.)
  6. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  7. The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
  8. Alpha Beta by John Man
  9. Maphead by Ken Jennings
  10. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  11. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
  12. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  13. To Reign in Hell by Steve Brust
  14. The Choose Your Own Adventure series by Vermont Crossroads Press
  15. The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander
  16. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  17. Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen
  18. The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  19. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  20. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  21. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  22. The Seven Daughters of Eve by Brian Sykes
  23. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  24. The Tunnel by Russell Edson (poetry that will blow your mind)
  25. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

If you’re still with me, I hope you read some of these. 😀

I’ll probably post another list later, maybe with a theme. Happy reading!

-dlp

Published by

Drs. Dana Pertermann & Mark Neels

Friends, colleagues, and sparing partners, Drs. Dana L. Pertermann and Mark A. Neels collaborate on research in military history, politics, and culture. They are currently both college professors in Wyoming. They blog weekly about the past, the present, and the future of the U.S. and the world.

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