Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

Buy the Book

By Thomas Washington — November 01, 2003 6 min read
Librarians find reading a tough sell for today’s teens.

The Follett library software system is the literary conscience of St. Francis High School. It reports on overdue books, checkout statistics, and online catalog search records. This morning, my circulation numbers convince me that, as the school’s custodian of books and information, my job is on the line.

Approximately 700 students attend St. Francis in Wheaton, Illinois; every one of them is logged into the library database on the first day of school. During the 2002-03 academic year, my report says, I checked out 790 books. Of those, faculty members accounted for one-third. Over the course of the year, students borrowed approximately 400 books for what appeared to be class-related projects on, among other topics, the Holocaust, Robert Oppenheimer, Herbert Hoover, St. Teresa, Prozac, the Battle of Gettysburg, and UFOs. They returned most of these within a week, and sometimes within one day. The remaining 150 books included texts I had placed on reserve for student projects. Besides a few Robert Jordan books, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Shizuko’s Daughter, I didn’t come across any titles that I could place under the category of “personal reading.”

Some mitigating circumstances work in my favor. The neighboring public libraries abound with resources. Students might visit those sites with their families more than I realize. Students also love to shop, so Borders and Amazon.com might be filling the gap. I was new to the job last year, so I’m only starting to develop a following among students. Most are bookworms, loners, and presumed weirdos who know me from my previous years as an English teacher, loyal disciples who listened to my sermons on the importance of reading without putting their heads down or yawning. They number no more than 10.

The time factor also looms large. No one has any these days, especially kids. I have a mental image of a teenager sitting in the backseat of the family car, like a rock star chauffeured in a stretch limousine on the way to the next gig: soccer practice, band, choir, judo, yoga, the part-time cineplex job, track, community service, the ACT prep center, counseling, detentions, student government, football, and baseball. And outside the limousine, adult groupies pound on the windshield for a piece of the kid’s undivided attention: coaches, counselors, moderators, directors, teachers, parents, and employers.

If the simple act of leisure reading is supposed to figure into our overall success in educating young minds, then I need a new game plan.

For starters, I’ve been trying to organize a student book club. Last year, I gave potential converts assorted lists from Mortimer Jerome Adler’s Great Books of the Western World, the American Library Association’s Outstanding Books for the CollegeBound and Lifelong Learners, and young adult literature recommendations from the ALA. Three students showed up for our first discussion of Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese.

“You have to go out there and get them. Make them join,” one administrator told me after I reported the low turnout for our first meeting. But forcing kids to read is exactly what I was trying to flee from in my previous role as an English teacher. Watching them suffer through the prescribed curriculum of books such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Nor did I want to pose as a salesman for material I had no faith in. For that, I could have landed a job in advertising and quadrupled my income.

Surely a flair for salesmanship factors into the success rate of the English teacher (and librarian).

Surely a flair for salesmanship factors into the success rate of the English teacher (and librarian). The key is a good product line (No Shakespeare until senior year, and out with The Scarlet Letter already!) and an even sales floor approach, similar to the one I learned as a wine seller on Chicago’s North Shore.

Leading kids to books, I think, should work more on the level of gentle invitation, as one would summon dinner guests into the dining room. It’s best to rig the school library with display props and lure students in gradually. I use Ms. Miller’s sophomore English class as test bait. On Fridays, she has open reading period, so she sends her students down three at a time to pick over the collection.

They’re tough customers. These students already have cars, Game Boys, electric guitars, cell phones, and the Internet, not to mention seasonal trips to Colorado and Cancun. I feel like my 12-year-old self, trying to sell my Hot Wheels collection to the kid brother of my best friend. When I finally have them at the point of potential sale with a young adult fiction book, say Will Hobb’s Far North, they let loose a grin, as though I’m trying to pull something over on them.

“You really don’t think I have time for this, do you, Mr. Washington?” they ask. And then they skip out with a Marilyn Monroe picture book or something on the solar system. Half in earnest, I once told a sophomore I would pay him $5 to read Ironman. Written by Chris Crutcher, the story of a teenage athlete placed in an anger-management class was perfectly suited to the student’s recalcitrant nature. This was a book that I thought could change him forever, or at least open his eyes. He told me his mother would give him $10 for doing nothing.

Still, my efforts are not always a wash. Sometimes I hit the mark with return customers, mostly girls who long ago learned the joys of reading in the home.

Still, my efforts are not always a wash. Sometimes I hit the mark with return customers.

One week I printed out Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark” from our online poetry database and placed copies on the library desks before school. As the day progressed, I watched for any reactions, a bit like touching the toes of a paralyzed patient for any feeling. Soon enough, I got lost in the more mundane activities of the job—reloading the printer, collecting dimes for the copier, and solving the constant electronic trouble shooting so I’m not sure whether anyone’s day was lifted by Shelley’s artistry.

I also displayed a “book of the month” on the reference desk. I included a glowing quote that plucked a gem from the story line in the same way those enticing wine-shop descriptions of plum, dark currant, and cherry lead customers to slap down their credit cards.

My fall frontrunner was My Dog Skip, by Willie Morris. Here is the opening paragraph:

I came across a photograph of him not long ago, his black face with the long snout sniffing at something in the air, his tail straight and pointing, his eyes flashing in some momentary excitement. Looking at a faded photograph taken more than forty years before, even as a grown man, I would still admit I missed him.

With an invitation like this, I can’t imagine a student putting Morris’ book down. But they do. Eventually, a sophomore girl checked out the book. I didn’t get it back for 90 days. She said she never got around to reading it, but she liked the cover because it “showed the same boy who was in the movie version.”

Thomas Washington is a librarian at St. Francis High School in Wheaton, Illinois.

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