Are Books Important — or Just Stories?

I personally will always want books — not just stories.

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Just read a blog by my fellow bookseller, Bookavore , based on another blog by Clay Shirky. Bookavore wonders if  “Society doesn’t need books.  What we need are stories.”

It’s not my profession as a bookseller that makes me think we will always need books. In the rush to put everything in digital form, we make a lot of assumptions. One of them is that we will always have electricity. One look at the newspaper I still subscribe to lets me know that there is dissension all over the globe. Our diplomats fly from one trouble spot to another trying to make peace in places that may be about to acquire nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Our computers and phones keep us connected to people throughout the world and we stay aware of the impending threats. However, when we are willing to get rid of books, we make the assumption that no one ever will push the button and that terrorists will never be able to knock out our communication systems.

Where would we get our stories should we be subject to cyber terrorism? I suppose we’d all have some to tell. And maybe we’d all be trying so hard to survive we wouldn’t need just stories.  We might actually need information in hard copies to read for our survival. If we did have some time on our hands, it might be handy to have access to books to entertain, inspire, and give us hope.

Even if we continue to have relative peace, our digital communication is often interrupted. Phone lines go down — especially in more rural areas. Where I live, a good wind following a good rain, or even a  bird on the wires above, can knock out our power for hours or even days. During those times, books are treasured companions.

When reading a beautifully illustrated book to a child, nothing beats sitting on the sofa with a physical book on one’s lap and children cuddled up on both sides to share the view. I can’t see a Kindle really replacing that. They will probably improve them in time, but I doubt if they will feel like books in the hand. Touching an icon is not the same at all as turning a genuine page and getting a glimpse of the next one.

Books also connect me to those who preceded me in history. Many biographies and journals will never be published in digital form — especially those now out of print. The authors of these live on in physical books, which will continue to be read by those who are interested in them. Though it’s easy for anyone to publish digitally today, this only started a few short years ago. Some writers from the past will only be found in books.

I will always want books — not just stories.

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Is What Children Read Important, or Is It Enough That They Are Reading?

If you have exposed your children to genuine book treasures, they will soon learn that all that glitters is not gold. They will learn to discern for themselves what’s most worth reading. It doesn’t have to be a case of children reading bad books or reading nothing — not if you start developing a healthy book appetite in your children early enough.

Today in the WSJ I read the following by Ann Patchett: I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read that counts, it’s that you read….I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.

Should we apply that to children? Many teachers seem to think so. The general opinion seems to be that it doesn’t matter what a child reads, as long as he or she reads.  I agree only if parents and teachers have been striving since a children’s earliest years to  expose children to good literature through regular reading aloud. What and how a parent  chooses to read aloud  to a child greatly influences that  child’s own later choices.

Is What Children Read Important, or Is It Enough That They Are Reading?

I was fortunate in that my mother read to me often in response to my begging, and, of course, the begging was due to my earlier experiences of hearing the stories she chose for me. I also had two elderly ladies, both teachers with no children of their own, who were like adopted grandparents to me. They loved to buy me picture books. I still have some of them, and their choices helped develop my reading tastes.  By the time I was three years old, I had taught myself to read with a little help from my parents. I was dying to read stories without having to wait for someone to have some extra time to read to me. When someone finally gave me a very easy book with very large print and just a few words, I soon had it memorized because I’d heard it so often. Then I could go back on my own and study the words. I guess I was learning sight words without knowing it. Pretty soon I really could read the words and know which was which.

Somehow I also learned about letters. I would ask my dad about the ones in the headlines he was reading in the newspaper, and he always took the time to answer my questions. Someone probably also told me that the letters made sounds. The words I learned in the first book, I See a Kitty, which I can still recite over sixty years later, were like the Rosetta Stone to me. I could recognize them in other books being read to me, and then, after hearing the stories, I could go through the books on my own, looking for the familiar words and remembering some of the new ones through the context and illustration hints. This was how my reading vocabulary grew.

I See a Kitty didn’t have much plot.  Had it been my first book to hear I might have lost interest. But I had also heard Belinda and Father Christmas, Amanda (see my review of this here),  Marshmallow, by Clare Newberry, and many other books I’ve lost track of now.  So when I See a Kitty arrived, I already knew that learning to read was worthwhile, and I seemed to know that particular book was the key to my learning to read. From then on I read anything I could get my hands on, but the adults in my life made sure I could only get my hands on books that would feed my imagination, expose me to good art, and model the appropriate use of the English language. These books used complete sentences.  They helped me to reach for the sky instead of plunging me into verbal garbage.

In the late 1940’s when this was happening, there were not so many picture books available to children as today. We had the Little Golden Books. So I cut my teeth on The Taxi that Hurried; The Poky Little Puppy; The Saggy, Baggy Elephant; The Tawny, Scrawny Lion, and all the others.  Some of my favorites have titles I can’t remember, but all of these books introduced exciting new sounds and words — descriptive words  such as baggy, tawny, poky, scrawny, twinkly, drowsily, bashfully, lopsided– and an assortment of verbs to add to my conversations: yawn, stretch, tiptoe, prance, gobble and many more.  I was introduced to manners by Mr. Do and Mr. Don’t, who were created by Virginia Parkinson and Lowell Grant, a claytoonist in 1943.

By the time I was six I was an avid reader. On the Christmas of that year my Cousin Edna and Auntie Lucile gave me six Thornton Burgess books and I had devoured them in a week. I learned that toads can sing and  have beautiful eyes. I learned why the other animals respected Jimmy Skunk and didn’t mess with him. I also  learned about nature and human nature by meeting Sammy Jay, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Old Mr. Toad, Reddy Fox, and the other inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows.  The adults in my life learned that the way to my heart was to give me more and more books in the series.  And as I read each new book, my reading fluency improved.

After that, I met Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Maida, and the other popular series available at the time. They were not great literature, but neither were they pure fluff. They, too, helped develop fluency.  My favorite of these series was Maida, and my favorite in that series was Maida’s Little School — perhaps my first introduction to home schooling.

I have lost track of where my hungry mind went next. I remember the Bible-themed biographical fiction of Gladys Malvern. I unfortunately did not meet C.S. Lewis or Tolkien until I was a college student working in my local library.

Today parents and teachers are faced with an overwhelming variety of books when choosing reading material to read aloud or have around the house.  Some of it is excellent, some so-so, and some are uncreative combinations of words with wonderful pictures. Just as parents go through their children’s Halloween candy, they should also approach the varied books on the library and bookstore shelves.  Ditch what looks dangerous and issue the rest of children’s choices with moderation. You don’t have to read everything a child chooses. A little fluff won’t hurt your child anymore than an occasional candy bar or soft drink. But first children need to develop a taste for the milk, meat, and veggies of the book world — the books that will feed their imaginations, model the variety to be had in the words and phrases  of the English language, and introduce the kind of characters you’d like to have  play with your children.

When a child reads, he is entertaining the characters of a book, and if those characters are rude and disrespectful to others, that behavior will begin to seem “cool.” Real children can be engaging without constant disruptive or rude behavior. I’m not suggesting that only children too good to be true are suitable protagonists. Nick in Frindle and Dave and Lynsey in No Talking — both by Andrew Clements — are leaders of their peers, but they are also thoughtful and able to relate respectfully to adults.  Imperfect children also visit Narnia, but we can see they do have a sense of right and wrong. Compare them to Ivy and Bean, who seem totally self-centered and think nothing of lying, talking back, and being downright mean to siblings. Which of these children do you hope your child will most be like?

Ivy and Bean are popular with today’s children and on the reading lists in many classrooms. Your children will probably meet them if their friends do. But you don’t have to be the one to introduce them.  Read them something more worthwhile that’s a bit above their reading — but not interest — level. Read them the Chronicles of Narnia, Homer Price, Soup, Little Britches, Anne of Green Gables, whatever is age appropriate. Do read enough current children’s literature and interesting books for all ages to be able to make your own list of what you don’t want your children to miss, and you’ll probably discover there’s hardly enough time to get through those.  Explain there are many kinds of treasure, and books are one kind. Explain that you want to share the book treasure you have found that they might not find on their own, just as you introduced foods that have become their favorites they didn’t know about before.

In the early years, when you are still able, you can help your child cultivate a taste for the best books by choosing only the best to read aloud, at least most of the time. When you go to the library, choose books together. Your time is limited, so make it quality time. Take a book you really enjoy and read it with expression, using  many voices, to your child as you cuddle up on the sofa together. Talk about the pictures and discuss the characters as you would friends. Did they make wise decisions? What do you think they will do next? Do you think they might do something differently if they could go back in time? Whom do you like most? Why?  Did you dislike a character? Why? Which storybook character would you most like to meet in real life? Pretty soon, these discussions will come naturally as your child also asks you questions.

Your child will go through phases of reading what’s popular with his or her friends. Be sure and read some of these yourself for the purposes of conversation, because you do want to meet your child’s book friends who influence him. But continue to share your book treasure even after your child can read for himself. Share your thoughts on your individual reading with each other as another way of understanding each other. Then you will have a common frame of reference when you need to find outside examples of ways to solve problems or getting along with people. If you have exposed your children to genuine book treasures, they will soon learn that all that glitters is not gold. They will learn to discern for themselves what’s most worth reading. It doesn’t have to be a case of children reading bad books  or reading nothing — not if you start developing a healthy book appetite in your children early enough.

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My Goodreads Playground

About a month ago I discovered goodreads.com, and I haven’t been the same since.  In fact, I am close to addicted.  Anyone who’s ever known me or been in my house can tell you I’m a bookaholic. I signed up with librarything.com first, but one has to pay to list more than 200 books there. I also tried shelfari.com, but it insists on putting books on my shelf I don’t have and do not want to have. So I seem to spend all my spare time at goodreads.com. Check out my reading list there .

Now if you can’t understand why anyone would enjoy just making lists of books to read, already read, or what one is currently reading, please understand there’s a whole lot more to it than that. It’s a whole social networking site built around books. You can make friends with those on the site who have similar reading tastes or invite real-world friends to join you so you can keep up with each other’s reading choices.  You can compare your books lists with others to see if a friend invitation is in order. You can read member reviews of any books that interest you and rate and review any books you’ve read to help others with their selections. But, best of all, there’s trivia.

And, I confess, trivia is really what has me hooked.  Once you have your account, just go to the menu across the top and click on “Explore.” And from the drop down menu, pick “trivia.”  Your first multiple choice question will appear. If you don’t like it, you can skip it with no penalty — after all, not everybody can read everything that’s been written. You can even limit your trivia questions to those about books on your lists. And if you think there’s not enough variety, you can write some questions of your own to add to the fun.  The site keeps score of how you are doing in relationship to others, how you answer specific questions compared to your friends, etc.  You can even evaluate the questions themselves. I love playing goodreads trivia and adding questions on the books I’ve read and seeing what others think of them.

One other feature I occasionally use is the “books lists” on the “explore” drop-down menu. This enables me to see what others think are the best or worst books ever in a number of categories and to add my own additions to these lists and to order them according to my own opinion.  This, in turn, has the capacity of changing the main list as others continue to add their input. Looking through these lists is a great way of putting more books on your shelves because you are bound to run into a few you’ve read but not thought about when making your first bookshelves.  The more books you have listed, the more fun the site becomes as you compare reading lists with others — another good way to update your shelves.

The last feature I really enjoy is  the group discussion. There are public groups for every reading interest. Or you can start a private group for you and your real world book club so you can have your book discussions on line. I have joined a few of the public groups and really do have a good time interacting with others who want suggestions or opinions on books I’ve read and who will offer me suggestions for books that might meet my own needs.  As I participate in discussions and get reading updates and reviews from my friends, I find myself adding books I’ve never heard of to my own wish list.

I have by no means described all the features of this site that make it sticky. But I hope I’ve described enough to motivate you to get your own free account and give it a whirl.

Begin at the Beginning

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, To talk of many things: Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax –Of cabbages — and kings. So I thank Lewis Carroll for my title, and you can expect to find me talking of many things in this blog.

Since I’ve chosen a blog name from Lewis Carroll, I might as well quote him in the title of this first blog. “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is one of my favorite poems. And I’m also rather fond of the Cheshire Cat. Sometimes when the moon appears as just a big smile in the sky, I’m reminded of the Cheshire Cat’s grin when that’s all that’s still visible of him. Another of my favorite scenes is when Alice encounters the caterpillar. I didn’t intend to talk about this, and I’ve no idea where my copy of Through the Looking Glass is right now, but I think these references are to scenes in that book.

'The Time Has Come the Walrus Said To talk of many things: Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax -- Of cabbages -- and kings -- And why the sea is boiling hot -- And whether pigs have wings.'

As the blog name indicates, the topics may change from day to day. I am a affiliate seller of new and used books, and most of them are for teachers or children. Others, especially the used ones, are about topics I’m interested in — gardening, cooking, biography, history, humor, etc. Because I read a lot of books, I’m likely to talk about them often. I may also share experiences I have had as a bookseller or a blogger. And if it’s been a beautiful day, I just might mention my garden or what I’ve seen on a walk. Likewise, if something has inspired me, or if I’m thinking over something, I might share that here.

 

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’ (from “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll)

And that’s what I will do in this blog — talk of many things.

I hope you’ll join the conversation by commenting and asking questions. Maybe you have a new twist on something I’ve said here.Feel  free to disagree with me, too. We can all learn from each other.