Have you ever watched a stage play by local, unknown performers and been wowed? Walked through an art fair, filled with interesting creations, but returned repeatedly to the same artist’s booth, deeply moved? Perhaps even found something in a garage sale that actually seemed to speak to you? Picked up a book in browsing boredom and were then unable to put it down?
With the internet, we now have constant entertainment at our fingertips. We can find exciting new talent from around the world! Moving and flashing images catch our eye, provocative headlines draw us in, answers to every question are readily available. Words can be made readable on screens smaller than a mass-market paperback. Content can be tracked and stored forever.
But even as we embrace the possibilities in this brave new world, we still need the connections that bring us new discoveries, we need to be at the right place at the right time, even on the internet. Search engines and artificial intelligence may direct us to what is likely to engage, we may follow the collective enthusiasm for artists and talent, but what we remember will depend on how we experienced it, who shared it with us, and its rarity.
I remember reading Ray Bradbury’s short story, “In a Season of Calm Weather.” I remember so many stories and performances whose author’s and artists are unknown to me and who will never know the impact they made. Eternal and yet ephemeral. You don’t have to be famous to make a difference but you do have to share.
I have been thinking recently about classics and communities of readers finding diverse literature to share. When I look back on my college education in the 1980s, I am ashamed that even as my American literature class focused on feminist literature, including Charlotte Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, we never read any Richard Wright, Zora Neal Huston, Langston Hughes, or James Baldwin. We have to make an effort to read diversely. One of the greatest benefits of reading fiction is an increase in empathy – good fiction touches our hearts. We need to be aware of the weakness in our experiences and our understanding of our world. It makes us better citizens and humans. That doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy our comfort foods, see ourselves, our friends and our families reflected in the words we read. People come to request books at the library, sometimes embarrassed that they like a cozy mystery, a steamy romance, or an adrenaline-filled thriller. I hope we can always find stories for everyone.
So many books, so little time . . . This has never been more true. I remember when I read Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. I was enthralled by the story and the obsession, but mostly by the love of words and books. Imagine being in prison, reading and researching ancient texts and the first use of a word, contributing to something bigger than yourself. And being immortalized in a book.
Until I began working in a library, handling sometimes hundreds of books a day, I did not really understand that a bibliophile doesn’t necessarily need to read books—we just need to feel, see, smell, and hold them. Perhaps there is another word better suited. I actually love to read with an e-reader now because I can increase the size to make reading easier; I can carry dozens of books with me; and I can read in the dark!
So what makes a book? Apparently the Japanese word Tsundoku is the art of buying books and never reading them. What about ebooks? Book buying and reading has never been easier and yet how do you choose the books that count? What and who do you remember? What catches your eye?