My wife and I spent a pleasurable hour or so at the central branch of the Schenectady County Public Library over the weekend while the semiannual book sale was under way.
The event is a fundraiser by the library’s support group, the Friends, and the turnout was heartening to us.
To see hundreds of readers poring over thousands of titles made me think that books might just be around a while longer, despite my usually less than sanguine view about their prevalence in future society.
Understand that if you’re reading this today, you’re part of a minority group.
The National Endowment for the Arts, in its 2007 report on a comprehensive analysis of reading patterns in the United States, summed it up this way:
“Americans are reading less — teens and young adults read less often and for shorter amounts of time compared with other age groups and with Americans of previous years.”
NEA also found reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in prose reading dropped by 10 points, a 20 percent rate of decline.
There was more unhappy, though predictable, news. The decline in reading is tied directly to adverse effects on our culture, our economy and civic life and on our children’s educational achievement.
NEA’s “Big Read” program was announced at the same time the report was released. It’s aimed at community reading and, in my view, at reviving America’s love of books.
The book sale with its intergenerational throngs of browsers made me think there might be some hope.
I understand that there quite likely will always be books in one form or another — electronic versions online or audio books on CDs.
But we learned to love books when we were young and a visit to the library was a joyful, much anticipated event. Those books were produced by putting ink on paper and binding the pages together between hard covers. They felt good in your hands, and they had a pleasant smell when you opened them.
A few years ago, when I was commuting an hour and a half or more a day, I listened to books on CDs. It was a good way to make productive use of that otherwise idle time, and I enjoyed the books I consumed on those rides. But it wasn’t the same as pulling an old friend off the shelf and settling into an easy chair for a good read.
On Saturday at the library, though, you’d never have guessed that reading is in decline in the United States.
You could barely fit through the crowds in the aisles between the tables, inside and out, laden with books of every possible genre. People were leaving with bags full of books, most of them picked up for $1 apiece.
Besides reading, Beverly and I share a love of cooking, fine dining and food history, and she was thrilled to discover a batch of the little recipe books that accompanied Time-Life’s “Food of theWorld” collection published in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Recipes from Provence, Italy and Russia were among the wire-bound notebook-style editions that accompanied the bigger, illustrated books written by the likes of Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher.
We also found a barely used copy of Ken Follett’s “World Without End,” the 2007 sequel to his 1989 masterpiece, “The Pillars of the Earth,” along with some recreational reading — an old Agatha Christie mystery, a couple of Grishams and a John Le Carre thriller, and a few others, including a couple by one of Beverly’s favorites, James Herriott, the pen name of the British veterinarian who wrote the delightful books that became the BBC television series, “All Creatures Great and Small.”
For less than $20, we walked off with a boxful of books and a bag filled with what wouldn’t fit in the box — our summer reading collection — and we made a modest contribution to the Friends for their library projects. (A footnote: Last year, the Friends raised $46,487 in their book sales.)