A lament for the loss of books.
I spent half my summer weeding the St. Francis High School library collection. Grime has settled everywhere, on the textblocks and in the gutters, in my nose and lungs. The pages are the color of yellowing teeth. The spines and hinges have separated from the lining, beyond repair. The collection now teeters on extinction. If I pull any more weeds from this modest garden of knowledge—it's down to two long shelves and could easily be consolidated into one—then I fear I will fully expose the collection's moribund state.
My concern is more than a nostalgic lament for a bygone era. It's not like grandma and grandpa sitting on the front stoop pining for the days of homemade ice cream. This line of thought reduces the book's demise to a matter of our apparent preference for reading on a screen instead of turning pages by hand. The issues behind my neglected book stacks are only marginally rooted in the paper vs. electronic-media debate. Yet this is as good a place as any to get a grip on the syndrome, to understanding a half-century's neglect of The Fossil Book and Thackeray's Vanity Fair, among others.
Before I tossed the old library books to the junk pile (even Amvets and the Salvation Army refused them), I pulled the index cards from the flyleaves. I bound the cards with rubber bands, in piles of 40 or 50. And then I took the cards home and did the math. The last time a student checked out Travels With Charley was Oct. 6, 1970. Emily Cosgrove was the last student to check out The Life of Plants, in 1982. The History of Spain was never checked out at all. It's been sitting on the shelves since St. Francis opened its doors back in the 1950s.
Of the more than 500 index-card dates that I tallied on a lazy August afternoon, the average final checkout date was 1982. Was I on to something here? If we apply the numbers to the reading habits of the high school student at large over the past 50 years, we reach a hypothesis. Adolescent faith in a 250-page book as a means to acquire knowledge, or as a way to entertain oneself, bottomed out sometime around 1982, roughly the same time that those first, gargantuan IBMs made their way to our desktops.
On the face of it, this is yesterday's news. Teachers have detected the teenage aversion to books ever since the government started dragging kids away from the cornfields into the classroom. Johnny doesn't like to read and would rather be driving cars or sitting in front of a computer with a joystick in his hands. What else is new?
Still, this assumes that sometime during Johnny's schooling, probably in elementary school, he learned to like reading. We took it for granted that by the time he turned 20, after a decade-long hiatus from books, Johnny would regain his initial love of reading with all the certainty of the prodigal son returning to his father's loving embrace.
I'm certain I was not a loyal patron of Ms. Bear's library at Elgin High School, circa 1978. As I remember, she spent more time hushing us than checking out books. This wasn't because I didn't like books. Like most of my classmates, I was enjoying the last year or two of that voluntary hiatus from the reading room and was driving cars and smoking cigarettes instead.
Yet, even without Ms. Bear's help, I was drawn to book covers and titles out of natural wonder, out of the notion that something fascinating awaited me from among the spines. As a child, all those trips to the St. Charles Public Library in the family station wagon were money in the bank. They were a foundation for a lifetime of reading.
By all appearances, today's high schoolers haven't arrived at St. Francis with the same childhood wonder. Instead of books, 15 computers line our library foyer. Each station has a new, pressed-wood tabletop and tilt chairs, a kind of Starship Enterprise command post from which students navigate their way along the information Autobahn. Installing computers in this high school library has had the same ruinous effect as television in the home, I think. What the TV did to conversation around the family dinner table, the computer has done to extended bouts of concentration. Students "surf" the Internet, meaning that the longer they stand on top of the waves of information, the better the ride. The goal is never to go under, never to fully immerse oneself in the contents of the page.
Their scattered searches and wanderings represent the ideal motif for the nature of acquiring knowledge and ideas. But the Internet gives them the impression that knowledge is flimsy and borderline out-of-fashion. And because a fact or idea can (apparently) be acquired in a double click, they're anxious to get back to the manifold diversion of gruel that beckons them on sites such as Dogpile or Bored.com ("When you have nothing better to do").
Meanwhile, in the midst of my information-literacy lesson plans, the value of browsing a bookshelf or a periodical just for the heck of it is lost upon them. Like my summer weeding project, I help teach students what to toss out rather than what to read. I'm helping them become connoisseurs of information, conditioning them for the maximum-efficiency approach, that blanket smartness that one needs today to cut the mustard in the working world of productive technology. Kids are no dummies. By the age of 12, they sense that the true gauge of academic success has more to do with standardized-test scores and ACTs than finding The Chocolate War in the book stacks and retreating to a corner.
Yet, after the day's whispering and muted chatter vanish, and I close the door for an hour or two of peace among the book stacks, I realize there's still enough brain material among the St. Francis library's two remaining shelves to occupy anyone for decades. Even after the heavy weeding, The Oxford History of Islam, Bernhard Grzimek's 13-volume Animal Life Encyclopedia, or Jacques Cousteau's The Ocean World still invite. They're rooted in that junior-scholastic genre of topics that beckon us back to the age of wisdom for wisdom's sake.
In this era of specialization and high productivity, books and literature remain the great potential integrators, the glue that can repair technology's arrogant muscling in between the stacks.
Thomas Washington is a high school librarian in Wheaton, Ill., who writes frequently on education.
Vol. 23, Issue 14, Page 31Published in Print: December 3, 2003, as Weeding