TERRE HAUTE —
I have been busy of late. In the short-sleeved afternoons, after I get home from work, I am in the tidy groove of trading a pair of dress slacks for grungy blue jeans and an old T-shirt, and my boots, of course. I have been raking and cleaning and chain sawing and weed eating like a possessed man, hoping that I can get my yard in passable shape, that I can get our mums in the ground, a little firewood stacked, and our now-empty flower pots tucked away in the barn before it turns cold for good. Like that industrious ant I often heard of as a boy, I go about serious business before the snow flies, before I need gloves and overcoats and wool socks.
I am tired in a satisfied way by the time I head to bed, my papers graded and my belly full, and despite the fact that I now sleep the sleep of the slightly worn and middle aged, I usually get it fixed in my head about this time of night that I have a promise to keep, a promise that I made to myself years ago: that on even the latest of evenings, I will read a while before I shut my eyes.
My habit is often a guilty pleasure, one I steal from time with my family and the diversion of dreams. I read as though I juggle, trying to balance a bit of history with a novel or a pinch of poetry with a journal article, and I do so in a curious way, with a reading light clipped to my book or magazine. Of course, we own lamps — we do have electricity here in the sticks — but the tiny light makes me feel like I am once again tucked away under a childhood quilt, reading with a flashlight in a room darkened too early, or in a campsite tent, the flickering of a small candle lantern supplying just enough light to follow a sentence across a page while the crickets do their thing just a few feet away.
Tonight, I plan to get after the last pages of James Swanson’s “Bloody Crimes,” a most-excellent account of the death and burial of Abraham Lincoln and the corresponding search for the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, who went on the lam just after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It is a great book, not just because I am interested in the times, but because I am interested in people. The author is entertaining me and teaching me, the best kind of reading I can imagine. I have balanced its reading with Hal Borland’s “Homeland,” a wonderful old book that I have read before, while Bill Bryson’s “At Home” sits in my literary on-deck circle.
What has happened to the nation of readers we once were? I have a vested interest in that question. I am an English teacher, and it is a difficult time to be one of those right now. If we believe the latest pablum about school reform, we are living in an age in which most schools are doing poor jobs. They are filled with poor students and even poorer teachers, most of whom sit back in the comfort of the school lounge while Rome burns about them. Surely, another standardized test, another bar of accountability to jump, perhaps even giving schools letter grades, these are our saviors, our answers.
In my little corner of the educational world, I often see students who are bored, not just with my subject, but with every subject. Although there are exceptions — I was encouraged to see one of my kids reading “Oliver Twist” last week, and another asked about “Robinson Crusoe” — many of those who sit in my classroom don’t read much of anything, but, then again, why should they? Our standardized tests cover little more than excerpts from mostly mundane bunkum. To most of our kids, reading means choosing the best option on a multiple choice test, their only goal, to score a passing grade.
I took it upon myself to read a slice of “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Reading in America.” It was conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004, and although its data may be a bit ripe, it is telling and frightful.
As of six years ago, the rate of decline among American adults who read literature for pleasure had tripled in just 10 years. All age groups saw a decline in reading, but the three youngest groups in the survey saw the steepest drops. The rate of decline for young adults, ages 18-24, was a staggering 55 percent greater than that of the remaining population.
So what, you might say. Dana Gioia, who chaired the NEA when the survey was undertaken, said it best, I think. As she put it, just after the results were released, “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life … to lose this human capacity — and all the benefits it fosters — impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”
I’m not suggesting that simply getting books into kids’ hands will solve all of our educational problems; I am not that naïve. It sure couldn’t hurt, though. Despite all the effort, all the dollars, all the hot air we hear about state-mandated testing, national reading scores for 17-year-olds have virtually flat-lined since 1971, and that’s according to the National Report Card’s latest data compiled in 2008. How many books could have gone into classrooms, into school libraries, with a fraction of the money we've spent on testing?
We can blame the Internet, and we can blame television and video games, lazy parents and lazy teachers, but it is more than that, I think. So many of our children no longer seem to understand what good books do for us — to us. Michael Dirda, who has written several great books about books, says that a good book, no matter what genre or age level, is one that “makes us see the world or ourselves in a new way.”
I don’t think that what we are asking our kids to read these days does that. If we must test, then let’s test them after we’ve given them the opportunity to read Robert Louis Stevenson or Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather or Jack London. Test them, but let them use their imagination — give them something that enriches their lives.
Well, it is too nice of an evening to stay as mad at the world as I am. Tonight, after supper, I will be riding a mournful train to Springfield; I will be in the Carolinas on horseback, searching for Confederate gold. I will flick on that tiny reading light, and I’ll keep a promise.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com to learn more about his writing, speaking engagements and book signings.