Summer reading is one of those traditional pleasures, like family fun, that exists largely in the realm of fantasy. About a quarter of all American adults claim not to have read even a single book in the past year. But that leaves 75 percent who have read at least one, even if it was only The Art of the Deal.
Yet, at this time of year, the newspapers and magazines invariably hit us with their “Summer Reading Supplements,” each one thicker and more daunting than the last. One such supplement, from a fairly well known New York newspaper reviewed or recommended over a hundred books, which works out at more than one for every day of summer. How much reading time do you expect to have?
In France the summer book supplements are even heavier, and more daunting. A survey came up with the heretical finding that the majority of French people actually believe that books are better than the internet, which is such a shocking rejection of progress that it can scarcely be believed.
This raises an intriguing question: in what sense if any are books better than the internet? Personally I love books because they are a relic of the past, and so am I. But I know that computers and portable devices can deliver little packages of information and entertainment faster and often cheaper. So why bother with a clumsy, old-fashioned technology that is four thousand years old and destroys an alarming number of our vanishing trees?
To answer this unwelcome question I did some research. This consisted of sitting in the room where I usually work, staring at the computer screen for a few minutes, and then revolving on my chair to look at the books on the walls.
The answer, when it came, was obvious. Books create guilt, while the computer and all its portable companions do not. My computer can potentially bring me most of the knowledge in the world. That’s the thing, “potentially.” But I have a few hundred books, and they are here already, on the shelves, on the desk, and on the floor. Some I have read and some I haven’t, but they are here. And by being here as solid physical objects they remind me of all the things I don’t know, but should. By contrast the blank computer screen is totally forgiving, it doesn’t make me feel bad about the vast blank spaces in my mind. But a book will sit there glaring at me until I read it. Likewise the long shelf of Encyclopedia Britannica volumes in the library, in their black and gold bindings, they are a constant reminder that I know almost nothing about anything. When it comes to ignorance your friendly, undemanding computer is a co-conspirator, an enabler.
The point is that we don’t need to worry about the “Must Read” Summer Supplements, or the bestseller lists which are in any case packed with formulaic tales of romance and death. Think about the literary backlog. Thousands of authors for hundreds of years have produced enough fine books to last any one of us for several lifetimes. Summer is a time for classics: Thackeray, Dickens, Austen, Eliot, or the late-lamented Tom Wolfe. Classics have weight, and if you choose one single book that is heavy enough, like Middlemarch, it will last you all the way through to Labor Day.
Copyright: David Bouchier