- by Flo Fitzpatrick
Two events last month gave me that gut punch to the stomach feeling. The first was the Fahrenheit 451 moment of watching of cops tossing out thousands of books from the “Occupy Wall Street Library.”
The next blow came about a week later, a candidate for the office of President of the United States stated, “I’m a leader; not a reader.” My first assumption upon hearing this was, “He’s kidding, right? Aiming for a ‘parody of the parody’ on The Simpsons old spoof about ‘President Schwartzenegger.’”
However, since the candidate had made his disdain for reading painfully obvious through non-or-wrong answers in previous interviews and debates, the humor, at least for me, flopped.
What remained after was anger for the messages sent by this ‘joke.’ (And yeah – full disclosure – I’m a writer, so someone denigrating my profession tends to tick me off.) I was hit by the sad realization that there’s an assault on reading erupting around us.
My anger then morphed into musing over messages found in that ‘lead/not read’ comment. The first message appears to be that it’s okay – heck- not just okay but encouraged for folks to ignore thousands of years of history and current events in favor of being a know-nothing. The idea that reading is now reserved for the geeks and wimps or poverty-stricken poets.
It seems that folks are now paraphrasing the old quote about quiche from the 1980s, which apparently has become, “Real men don’t read. ”
I’m dismayed by the blithe dismissal of leaders throughout history who were readers, whether that leadership came through politics or business or the military. I’m stunned by the ignorance shown by someone who wants to ‘lead’ a country that probably would not exist had it not for the voracious reading habits of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin or John Adams.
There’s even an odd message of poor health involved in “lead/not read.” Numerous research studies cite ‘mental stimulation’ as one of the positive “holder-offs” in protection against Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Reading books and stories, working cross-word puzzles, learning a new language, and memorizing quotes or even tomorrow’s shopping list . These are all techniques involving reading – not leading.
There’s a last message sent I’m calling the “let’s fuggedabout poetry and emotion of reading.” Here’s an example: “Boy meets girl. Love happens. Families say NO. Boy pretends suicide. Girl finds him – commits suicide. Boy suicides for good.” I’ve just reduced Romeo and Juliet to an under-140-character tweet.
The plot’s there but the beauty of the words and the emotion stirred by those words is non-existent. Maybe I’m overreaching but it seems to me the major (and lasting) products of civilization reside in literature and the arts and the ability for a little play written in 1594 to stir intense emotions in 2011.
In 1959, Rod Serling wrote the teleplay for an episode (short story by Lyn Venable) of The Twilight Zone that frightened me more than space aliens serving up people for dinner. It’s called Time Enough at Last and it featured marvelous actor Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis, a quiet, miserable, bank teller whose greatest wish in life is to left alone to read. Flash forward to a nuclear holocaust and the images of Burgess as perhaps the last man standing.
He’s surrounded by books, thousands of them – ready to be opened and devoured. As he reaches for a book lying next to the library clock, his glasses fall and break. Break heck – he’s left with nothing but the frames. His greatest wish has become his biggest nightmare.
Themes abound in Henry’s story but whenever I watch that episode I don’t think of world destruction or human isolation or even ‘be careful what you wish for.’ As a reader I’m filled with that awful sense of despair Henry feels upon realizing he will never be able to see words on a page.
Books provide emotional release as well as knowledge. If life is dull, I grab an adventure or legal thriller. I can be lifted out of a blue day by a re-read of Elizabeth Peter’s Die for Love which gets me laughing from page one on. If I can’t get a good cry out of anything else, there’s a certain scene involving a house elf in the seventh Harry Potter that guarantees an hour’s worth of tears.
If I’m looking for comfort or sanity in an insane world, I grab one of the old Helen MacInnes novels from the 1960s where the heroes are all decent, honorable, men who end up restoring their own version of worlds gone mad through their decent, honorable actions.
Real men – who read.