Saturday, March 08, 2008

“Carrying the book around with me that summer”

Steve Jobs of Apple Computers writing in a New York Times Blog on January 15th about a new electronic reading gadget said that: "It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year."

Well, what is wrong with reading one book a year, one may ask? It depends on the book, does it not? In Other Colours: Essays and a Story, the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk recalls that a few years ago he reread Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma. "After finishing certain pages of this wondrous book," he said, "my eyes would pull back from the old volume in my hand to gaze at its yellowing pages from afar. As I was carrying the book around with me that summer, I asked myself many times why it was such a pleasure just to know the book was at my side."
And in the course of a very fine essay, Pamuk goes on to say that in reading the book he "experienced the joy of youth, the will to live, the power of hope, the fact of death, and love, and solitude."
And he concludes: "as in novels, there is in life a genuine wish, an impulse, a race towards happiness. But there is more than that. A person wishes to reflect on that desire, that impulse, and a good novel (like The Charterhouse of Parma) is well suited to this purpose. In the end a wondrous novel becomes an integral part of our lives and the world around us, bringing us closer to the meaning of life…"
It seems that it took Pamuk a whole summer, three months, to read The Charterhouse of Parma. And so it should.
Reading Pamuk’s ideas on reading go the heart if what librarianship is all about.

John Berry writing in Library Journal this month writes about the focus of librarianshiop today being "aimed at making sure everyone who comes in goes out with ‘product’ (books, CDs, DVDs, or downloads)." And he writes: "What the patron takes home is of as little concern to the storekeeper librarian as it is to the supermarket manager." And he continues: "The success of the library enterprise is measured in the number of products collected by patrons, now called ‘customers.’ It is no longer measured in the usefulness or impact of the service on the quality of life in the community served."
And he comments that he is surprised that so few leaders of librarianship are raising their voices in alarm at what is going on.

Jean-Francois Manier, the French poet and philosopher, is also concerned about such matters. And he is particularly concerned about how such matters are viewed in the kind of world we live in today.
"Confronted with the risk of having only ‘fast food’ literature left to enjoy," he said, "I feel an urgency to resist the growing powers of the entrepreneurs of culture."
He continued: "The book is such an inordinate life stake that it requires criteria of value other than the rate of its turnover."

As John Berry points out: it is the quality of the book collection, and how we assemble such a collection, which is of vital importance.

Just to go back to Pamuk again, he writes: "I have a vivid memory of reading The Brothers Karamazov at the age of eighteen, alone in my room, in a house which looked out over the Bosphorous....I felt as if its most shocking revelations were thoughts I'd entertained myself. I felt as if Dostoyevsky were whispering arcane things about life and humanity, things that no one knew, for my ears only: I felt like saying, I am reading a book that shocks me deeply and will change my entire life."

One need have no doubt that reading a book such as The Charterhouse of Parma or The Brothers Karamazov does what good books have always done; it enlarges the world of emotional and ethical options. When you are finished reading such a novel, you are stronger than when you started, though it may have made you feel pained or shocked. "The great value of such a novel is that it provides an arena for mustering emotion, intellect and imagination."

As the Polish writer Jerzy Kosinsky reminds us, "to read a novel is to practice for real life."

Perhaps the great value of the public library space is that it provides an arena for mustering emotion, intellect and imagination. It is a space which enlarges the world of emotional and ethical options.

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