With the presidential primary season underway, it occurred to us here at PW that libraries have been glaringly absent from the national political conversation. But we think that, with all the talk about "infrastructure," a commitment to libraries would be a great national investment. So, we asked Nancy to imagine herself on a rope line, where she would have a minute or so to bend the ear of the president or one of his would-be challengers, before security released her vise-like handshake. Could Nancy the librarian be this year's Joe the Plumber? What, we wondered, would be Nancy Pearl's rope-line pitch for a national commitment to libraries?
A: I'd begin by introducing myself as a mother, a grandmother, a writer, a librarian, an educator—and a voter. Then I'd explain that a commitment to our libraries is a commitment to our democracy. Libraries are one of the last two egalitarian institutions left in our country—public schools are the other, and we can all pretty much agree that there's not much good news on that front these days. Public libraries are places where everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, economic status, politics, birthplace, language, race, sex, and sexual orientation—all the things that seem to separate us—bring us together. Libraries are not simply repositories for books, they are among the most humane of all public institutions, and because we serve all members of the community equally, also among the most civilizing. "As a politician," I'd say, "perhaps you know better than anyone what happens when a community loses its sense of civility."
Libraries are where kids come for homework help, or story time. Where those without access to computers can research and apply for jobs, or get help with their résumé. Where non-English speakers can find reading materials in their native language or practice their new English skills in "talk time" sessions. It's the place where communities can come to hear a speaker, an author, or just each other. Where knowledgeable, trained staff every day help people find that next great book to read, and we know how important a strong reading culture is to our nation. Libraries are a vital asset to our nation and essential to any community's health and well-being. A community without a library, I'd say, is without a heart.
And just as the bodyguards try to hustle the candidate away, I'd say to them: "Please, just go visit your public library!" If they did, they would see that all of what I just described is happening there, and how their support could make a real difference.
Kids and E-readers?
Q: Hi, Nancy! I'm deliberating getting an e-reader for my eight-year-old twin boys. My husband loves his, though I'm a little more old-school. Pros: the kids read all the time and it would help keep up with book demand and storage. Cons: it's a device, so more screen time, and going to a book store is no longer a treat. And the devices are breakable. I'm sure there are other factors, but my coffee's still brewing—what are your feelings about e-readers for children?
—Karen, Redmond, Wash.
A: This is a question that I get asked a lot, so I've spent a lot of time thinking about it. And you're right, there are several different issues involved. One is, of course, the convenience of e-readers. They sure do make it easy to pack a lot of books, leaving room in one's vacation suitcase for other things, and they do minimize the amount of space given to storing books at home. Of course, I could also argue, as Anthony Powell so provocatively titled one of his Dance to the Music of Time novels, that "books do furnish a room." To me, there's nothing more interesting than going into someone's house and seeing their books displayed. In fact, check out the picture of the bookshelves in my living room [see opposite]—you certainly know much more about me and my reading tastes after seeing what I've chosen to keep.
But, as you suggest, there are also more serious issues surrounding children and e-readers. The amount of time that most eight-year-olds spend in front of a screen—whether it's a television, computer, or a video game—is astounding. My sister is Susan Linn, the author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World, as well as the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and an instructor in psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. She pointed out to me that, on average, children ages eight to 18 already spend more than seven hours a day with electronic media. I say, if your boys enjoy reading, maybe encourage hands-on engagement with traditional books, and perhaps try to limit use of an e-reader to when the family is traveling?
Lastly, I've always found one of the joys of reading to be serendipity—looking for a particular book on the shelf at a library or bookstore and finding an even more interesting-looking book in the process. That discovery aspect is mostly lost with an e-reader, because often you're usually downloading particular, already selected titles.
I read on both an iPad and a Kindle, and I don't mind it at all. It still doesn't feel quite like real reading to me, though, and I am still trying to figure out what it does feel like. I know that I haven't clutched either one of those devices to my bosom because I loved what I was reading, as I have done with "real" books. But the iPad, and similar tablets, do have one advantage over printed books. Angry Birds! But whether this is actually an advantage, in a device intended for use as an e-reader, I will leave to your own judgment.
Books to Read Before You Die
Isn't the title wonderful? It came from a new e-mail correspondent of mine, 14-year-old Austin Preece, who, along with his mother and younger sister, is collaborating with me to compile just such a list for children and teens. Going forward, I'll be offering a list of essential reading, old and new, on a range of subjects and genres. To start, here's the children and teens list Austin and I have come up with thus far. We'd welcome your input, as well, right, Austin?
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
Holes by Louis Sachar
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Next month: New books for adults to add to the list
Nancy Pearl, a veteran Seattle librarian, is a regular commentator about books on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. For more, you can follow her on Twitter: @Nancy_Pearl, and check out her blog: nancypearlbooks.wordpress.com
Email your questions or comments to Nancy Pearl at Checkitout@publishersweekly.com