Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent. ― Henry David Thoreau
Now here is a piece of good news. According to Gallup polling, visiting the local library remains, by far, the most common cultural activity Americans engage in. It’s nice to know Amazon hasn’t put libraries out of business yet.
For the most part, I think libraries have remained relevant in the cultural landscape because Librarians have adapted to the changing times fairly well: Bringing in advanced technologies—computers, Wifi, digital, etc, etc,—and continuing to be innovative in sponsoring various events at libraries that attract young families. So let us applaud the librarians and the local government officials who’ve continued to support them at budget time.
With that said, I’ll add that while it’s encouraging to see how well libraries are doing, it would be even more encouraging if we knew Americans were actually reading good books. The Gallup poll tells us that Libraries are being used and visited, but that doesn’t mean Americans—especially adults—are actually reading more quality books. The jury is still out on that.
For example, when visiting my local library recently I noticed all the computers were taken up by someone researching (or surfing). I notice people in the various conference rooms, and I usually see a few young families with small children walking the aisles or sitting in the children’s area looking through a stack of books. But typically I don’t see a lot of adults checking out or turning in stacks of quality history, biography, or science books. Of course I’ll note that I have no idea how many adults check out books via digital audio or print, which can be done online. So maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.
But then maybe it’s just me, but I don’t often hear many people talking much about the subject of some sustained reading they’ve been involved in. That requires sustained attention and an interest in learning and the mystery of things, which, at the moment, seems to be a declining thing in America. And I completely understand that some people may not care for reading—tragic though that may be. Maybe they’re just not interested or too busy.
I just tend to feel that a democracy—especially one that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people“—is hard to maintain when a sizable amount of the population appears to be terribly uninformed or just plain ignorant about the nation’s history, government, policies, social challenges, or things like basic science. We can’t properly defend our own or our family’s self interests, better yet the nation’s, if we don’t understand enough to know whether the choices we’re making are actually serving ours or our nation’s interests at all. Many of us, for example, vote for policies or people that are in direct opposition to our interests. And believe me, maintaining the rule of law and the democratic institutions that protect your individual freedoms is in your interest.
A lot of us uncritically adopt the opinions of others—from our family, group, favorite media source, or some other talking head on TV. But the measure of our education and autotomy is when we get to a point where we can intelligently challenge (openly or in own mind) our relied upon sources of information—by weighing and analyzing in light of our own personal readings and observations and then being able to change our mind on a topic or cherished belief….and then having the courage to say it.
Knowledge and education, of course, aren’t a guaranteed cure for human folly and prejudice. Only a fool who hasn’t read History could honestly think that. Educated people can be just as willing as anyone else to ignore their conscience, twist facts, and advance deep seated prejudices.
But what deep and focused reading can potentially do is introduce us to ideas that may gradually crack our caked prejudices and inherited world views and open us to the idea that maybe what we’ve believed all along is wrong or misinformed, or at least in need of some updating. That maybe we need to rethink some of our beliefs about people, our society, and the world. That is how positive change begins, how freedom and democracy have advanced.
I should add, that along with quality books and literature, the arts typically aim at doing this, especially serious films and other performing arts. They can expand our ability to empathize with others—open us to feeling our shared humanity. Note, that’s one big reason authoritarian rulers immediately shut down writers and artists when they take over. Genuine art is subversive in the authoritarian’s world view.
Of course I can’t leave out the reading of books that elevate our scientific grasp. As we read about science and the methods of scientists and the incredible amount of experimentation and research put into their findings, we learn how successful the scientific approach to knowledge has been in promoting human flourishing and, in the long run, democracy itself. As we look back through history we see that science and democracy tend to rise together—a phenomenon to be discussed at length in another post, eventually. With an education in science (reading science books) we learn to think more systematically, more empirically, about things and ideas and the opinions of others. And, in addressing public policy, that’s a good thing.
And so I’ll close with encouraging you to go to the library, check out some books, or buy books at the store, and then read those books whenever you can. Hopefully you’ll learn, grow, see and feel more deeply.
That’s what being truly educated is all about.