I mentioned in Dangerous ideas that books can be an important influence. I was talking about developing empathy for different social classes for example. Literature is important for many reasons. It’s not only a good teacher, but also has an important function as an escape.
I find it a little sad when I read that the last bookstore in the Bronx is about to be closed. This district in New York City has a tough reputation. It isn’t just a false impression that TV and movies have created, because statistics show that there is some crime there. This site gives Bronx a crime-index of 22, where 100 is the safest (I lived in Little Rock in 2001-2002 and was shocked to discover that this site gave LR an index of 1).
When I grew up reading had both the functions I mentioned. The books shaped me, but they were also a comfort and escape in a world that wasn’t always easy. I find it regrettable that the Barnes & Noble in the Bronx is closing down because their lease will expire. I would think there are other places they can rent, but I suspect this has more to do with a struggling book chain in general. Shopping habits have probably changed and a lot is done online now, even for Barnes & Noble.
A shop like Barnes & Noble should still be able to do well in the Bronx. It is actually quite an urban shop. I remember when I lived in Little Rock. I was quite surprised the first time I walked into Barnes & Noble. There were people sittng down at tables drinking coffee and playing chess. Maybe that’s more common than I think, but it wasn’t to someone growing up in a town that is small even for Norway. There are many people living in cities and towns that like to believe they have an urban lifestyle, and in many ways they’d be right. This type of book shop sounds perfect in that environment, but it is perhaps a sign of changing habits when you can’t sell books the traditional way in a borough with 1.4 million people
But this is much bigger than urban culture and old buying habits versus online shopping. There are many things that suggest a dumbing down in society. I mentioned the censorship of books in my previous post. That’s what Banned Books Week is trying to correct, because many children are sadly not encouraged to read the important books, those that encourage independent thought and criticism of the established, what we are expected to blindly accept.
I saw the same thing during my 14 years as a teacher. We expect less and less of the pupils. I’m not going to reveal anything specific, but I can say that I was expected to accept a low academic standard. I tried to take it up with the pupils, parents and principal, but I guess they didn’t see it as a problem. It seems that many grow up without reading anything unless they are forced to, and barely then.
I tried to encourage reading and writing as a teacher, two things that I think are important skills. I spent a lot of time trying to motivate the pupils in these two fields, but it was a hard job. In my last job as a teacher the pupils had a great expertise in illegal games (due to age), but there was no interest (and skill) in reading. It probably had a lot to with their lack of activites after school. They still believed they could become an electrician or carpenter straight out of junior high school (10th grade), because they had relatives who had managed without education. I’m afraid that world is gone, especially as they didn’t have any practical skills either. Moreover, it is not only the traditional subjects they need to learn. It is important to be able to reveal when the government manipulates you, or be able to do research and find information that is not readily available. And let’s not forget, reading is a lot of fun. It’s not just about learning a subject.
Some believe that the sum of this is a deliberate strategy to create a large underclass, which somehow gets stuck in this role. There is certainly a great possibility for that when many people don’t get an education, don’t question anything and are generally passive. If we don’t work towards achieving something, we won’t succeed. Then it is indeed possible to take a reversed class journey, from middle class to working class.
I don’t know if there is a controlled conspiracy behind this development, but there are at least several traits that seem to guide society in a negative direction. Many people that climb on the social ladder today pull the ladder up behind them. It can be a brutal awakening for those who anticipate help. I think we need the dangerous ideas more than ever.
It was a coincience that Rachel posted Diverse books for kids the day after I published the Norwegian version of Vanishing books. I believe we are thinking along the same lines. I might follow up with some books I’ve been reading myself and together with my daughter. Thank you for the inspiration, Rachel!