In defense of books -- Howard Craft

Howard Craft
Howard Craft hlynch@newsobserver.com

Three things my father carried: a pack of Winston 100s, Big Red chewing gum, and a book.

He could be found without his cigarettes and gum on occasion but never without a book. His bedroom closet was stacked from floor to ceiling with everything from Baldwin to Louis L'Amour.

I inherited my father’s love for books and reading. Like my father, one would be hard pressed to find me without a book on my person. I carry and conceal ideas in my back pocket or in my shoulder bag, and the cool thing is I don’t even have to take a class or have a permit to do it.

Durham is a city of readers. We have a population of around 267,000, and 87,000 of those residents are library-card holders. On Nov. 8, 2016, we voted on a bond to expand and renovate the Main Library. In a time when libraries across the nation are struggling, Durham is expanding its library services.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other big retailers have done damage to independent bookstores. Nice Price Books and The Know Bookstore, which were two of my favorite places to find obscure books, have closed over the last few years. Yet, cornerstones like the Regulator Bookshop are still here, and we now have Letters Bookshop, which opened on Main Street.

I’m proud to live in a city where people read books. Sadly, we live in a time where reading books and the pursuit of knowledge itself seems to be under attack, where being well read is seen by some, as being elitist. Rather than read a book about a topic, many would prefer to get their information from a TV talking head or from a social media meme.

Even the physical aspect of reading is under siege. One can’t wash clothes, jog, and drive and take out the trash while reading a book. All of these things are possible through platforms like Audible, which is why so many of us, including me, use them. But distracted listening isn’t the same as engaged reading, sitting down, being quiet and being present with words.

There is nothing like the feeling of completion that comes with reading the last page of a long novel. We hate that the characters we’ve journeyed with have come to the conclusion of their trials. But, we are comforted by the fact that we can relive those moments again and again by simply returning to page-one and re-reading the tale.

A love of reading is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our children.

During one of my poetry residencies years ago I had a student; I’ll call him John. He was bright eyed and enthusiastic, but whenever we got to the writing or reading part of our activities he completely shut down.

Later in the week I would find out, that although John was in the eighth grade, he was reading on barely a third grade level. He’d basically been allowed to pass because he was a quiet kid, and didn’t cause problems. Kids like John, won’t pass in high school, and so eventually many end up dropping out of school.

There’s a lot of blame. There’s much we need to do in our schools but at the end of the day, regardless of the school’s responsibility, it is our responsibility as parents, as relatives, as elders in the community to make sure our children can read. The quality of life they will have depends on that, whether our educational system does its job or not.

Children model adult behavior, they know what is valuable by what we as adults teach them is valuable. No kid could convince me that reading wasn’t cool because I grew up watching my father read, an ex-marine, who could speak on any subject from the history of boxing to the failures of Napoleon’s Russia campaign.

During slavery it was against the law for an African American to be taught how to read, and the punishment for a slave caught reading was the bullwhip or death. When explaining the importance of reading to my son, I asked him why he thought such laws existed and without hesitation he responded, “ So they could control the slaves better.”

Too many in our nation think what secures and protects our democracy is our military might, our number of guns. Yet the number of arms a nation has doesn’t determine whether or not that nation is democratic. What secures a democracy is a knowledgeable and educated populace. The pen is mightier than the sword because the words written by the pen lead people to action.

So what are you reading these days? What’s the last book you read? What will be the next?

Howard Craft is a playwright in Durham.