The Assault on Reading

- 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.

9 comments

  1. Great comments, Flo. Lots to think about and discuss. When I heard the man’s remark I thought he must be kidding. When I realized he wasn’t I wrote him off.

  2. Wonderful post, Flo! Thank you for your honesty and thoughtful words. I heard that “leader, not reader” comment too and cringed.

  3. This makes me sick to my stomach!! I hadn’t heard about this. Awful! As a lover of books, this makes me so sad. The next generation will never truly appreciate the joy of reading, the visceral act of holding a book in their hand and turning the pages if there aren’t any BOOKS to hold! I love the digital age but not at the expense of our lovely printed books. And then to have some yahoo do this?? Insult!!

    Arrgghh!

  4. So, he’s a leader and not a reader? How would he make a competent president or leader of anything if he doesn’t educate himself about all the other world leaders and their countries? He wouldn’t know them or how they ruled. How could he hold even a phone conversation with one if he doesn’t know enough to read and educate himself about them?
    Makes me shiver to have so ignorant a man aspiring to be President of the U. S.!
    Reading is history. A hundred years from now, someone will read a book and be surprised at our thinking, culture and morals. We learn from the people who go before us.
    My Dad used to quote someone that said, basically, that , “Those who don’t study history are bound to make the same mistakes. History repeats itself.”

  5. Yeah,I want to be led by someone who doesn’t read. The enire Library of Congress was established when Jefferson donated his personal library to the nation. Now, there’s a reader who was also a leader.

    Whoever this candidate is (I think I know, he’s stuck his foot in it several times already) we don’t need him running our country.
    I don’t want us stuck in a real Twilight Zone.

  6. That was supposed to be “entire”.

  7. I hadn’t heard about the “leader, not a reader” comment and I’m a CNN/PBS News junkie. (Says a lot about the media that they haven’t made prime-time hay with it.)

    That said, I’m appalled someone running for the highest office in the land would think this way, much less admit to it. What else besides books won’t he/she read? The the foot high annual budget proposals? The hundreds upon hundreds of department reports and policy briefs?

    Disgusting.

  8. If you make a habit of thoughtful reading, some time around 40 you acquire an eerie 360-degree four-dimensional sense for what the fools are going to do next–most especially the fools in power.

    In my work life, I’ve had the benefit of advice from the likes of Machiavelli, Gibbon, Napoleon, and the Duc de Saint-Simon. That’s several thousand years of other people’s snafus , and every one of them learned from their predecessors as well.

    So a “leader not a reader” is most likely to lead us… over the precipice. And the scorn for reading is a way to make sure we don’t notice it happening.

  9. I wish you’d named the speaker of your hated quote up front. Like some other commenters, I don’t remember hearing this. It wouldn’t surprise me if several Republican candidates aren’t big book readers, even if it disappoints me.

    At the same time, it was just a month ago that President Obama hit local book stores with his kids. Even his purchase lists got published. So there is hope for men who read.