Editor’s Note: This commentary by librarian Anna Call is part of our special focus on Summer Reading for the month of May.
Kids know the ritual well: receive list, borrow books, ignore books until the last week of summer vacation. Even enthusiastic students might put off their required summer reading for seven of their eight free weeks. Oddly—and this is based on my own experience, so consider it subjective—once they do start chipping away at the summer reading monolith, many students express positive feelings for the reading material. It’s almost as though children expect not to like reading.
This may be based on what they see in the behavior of the adults around them. Once those same summer non-readers reach adulthood, that vacation from required reading becomes permanent. Many an adult, upon hearing that I am a librarian by trade, will awkwardly hem and haw before admitting to me, like a lapsed Catholic before the Mother Superior, that they haven’t cracked the cover of a book since 1983.
I do think that’s a shame, but I have more empathy for modern non-readers than you might think. Shocking, I know, for a librarian to say that she doesn’t blame people for eschewing books. But for a post-industrial population as vastly overworked as our own, time spent sitting down with “The Round House” might better be spent with family and friends. I support that judgment call.
That said, there is an exception.
There is one class of people who should not only be required to read during their summer breaks, but who should be required to deliver weekly book reports. They should not casually skim—they should be avid. They should answer critical thinking questions and their answers should be published - and discussed - by the major papers and media outlets. They should have no choice in the matter, no say in their core curriculum, and no way to worm out of the job.
I’m speaking, of course, about politicians. On a pro-con analysis, this scheme is a no-brainer.
Pro: Politicians benefit from having a neutral, nonpartisan information lighthouse amidst the choppy sea of Internet half-facts and cable news demi-truths. Ponyboy will always be gold, Gatsby will never be cool enough, and Fiver will always be the best rabbit, no matter what Breitbart says about his mother.
Con: Some politicians just don’t like to read. Obviously, I have little sympathy for this position. I don’t particularly like to fold and iron my clothes, but there is a certain appeal to wearing a unwrinkled wardrobe when I go to work.
Pro: Voters would have a chance to see how their politicians think and how they think differently about the same material—material that is essentially frivolous Material that will not itself impact voters. How a person receives a book can tell you loads about what kind of person they actually are, and using nonpartisan, neutral books removes the list from the immediate cares of the electorate and allows us to assess the politician independently of their House and Senate crosstalk. I don’t know about the rest of America, but I’d be interested in knowing exactly what my senator thinks of The Lord of the Flies.
Con: Politicians are busy fundraising for campaigns and getting out among the people. To this, I say, How cool would it be if your representative just dropped by the library one day and spent three hours of their time publicly reading? Not yakking, not gladhanding, not taking pictures, not kissing babies—just quietly sitting by a window with a book.
This leads me to my next pro: Kids see adults reading books similar to theirs and they are able to open an intergenerational dialogue. Honestly, I don’t know how any politician could turn down the chance to corner that critical future voting demographic. As a bonus, if powerful adults have to read too, then maybe high school reading lists won’t go so badly neglected during the summer months. I know plenty of adults who might also opt in to literature if it meant starting a conversation with Corey Booker or Lindsey Graham. We could have a genuine literary revival on our hands.
Con: Politicians might try to get their staff to read books for them. See above. Public reading and live discussions would keep our elected officials honest, as though they needed that anyway, the little cherubs.
Pro: When a human being opens a book, they change. Literary fiction fosters empathy in the reader, so much so that it is measurable by real scientists using the scientific method. Do we not want politicians who care about us, who seek to understand and who are motivated to put themselves in our shoes?
Do we wish that more politicians were like that?
If you, like me, answered in the enthusiastic affirmative, then it is time for a change. Problems like lead in the water, oil pipelines on disputed land, and a couple of melting ice caps aren’t discrete issues, but the result of decades of idealogical buildup. I believe that American political dialogue generates this plaque when people in power think the same way year in and year out, toeing a party line and keeping their eyes locked on their own goals without braving the possibility that a new idea might divert them, shake them up, or change their point of view.
The beloved and reviled high school reading list may never have been so important. Let’s bring it back for a new generation of leaders. Let’s make our politicians read again.
Anna Call is a reference librarian at the Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @evil_librarian.