"No people can be ignorant and free"
"When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility."
--Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
[The above quotes came from Morris Berman's, The Twilight of American Culture (W.W. Norton, 2000)]
Reading is important for several reasons. It helps develop an ability to think and analyze ideas and obviously develops part of the brain that aid us in particular types of thinking. Anecdotally, I’d say that Americans lack an ability to think critically and our current societal structure, where our leader’s intelligence is suspect, seems to be a point in my favor. I’m sure the experts can tell us why reading is important. As a nation, I would guess that we are reading less now, than we did, say 50 to 75 years ago, although I might be wrong. Television, computers and other forms of entertainment make reading an unappealing option in the face of a culture that values entertainment over intellectual attainment and growth. I know some will take issue and point out that the death of the novel has been predicted for a long time and book sales continue to grow. I would counter with the knowledge that the books that are being mass-produced, are nowhere near as “deep” and challenging as the classics.
Having said that, I’d agree with writers like the late Neil Postman, and others like Morris Berman, who contend that we are getting dumber all the time. Television and the types of books foisted upon the public—shallow, new age treatises and self-help tomes—help contribute to the “dumbing down” of our culture.
I don’t know, on average, how many books per year Americans read. I found this, which indicates that for “light” readers, the number is on to five, per year. I apparently am a “frequent” reader, as I read between 12 and 49 during 2005. Maybe it’s the people that I run across, but I continually hear others cluck with pride that they don’t read, as if that is some kind of badge of honor. For those of you who are readers, you might find this interesting, also.
I read fewer books in 2005, than I did the previous two years. Part of the reason is the release of my own book, When Towns Had Teams. From January, until early May, I was working on my manuscript. The early months of the summer were taken with prepping the manuscript for printing and then, the early part of the fall was given over to marketing, writing reviews, shipping orders, etc.
Amazingly, having read only a couple of books going into the fall, I’ve been devouring them of late, hence, a number that is respectable for most, but pales next to some.
Here are the books I read in 2005, with selected accompanying notes.
--Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
I first got turned on to Schlosser's abilities as an investigative journalist, from reading his best-selling, Fastfood Nation.
While the sales of this one were less than FFN, Schlosser once again peels back the veneer of our capitalist culture, to reveal the underside of the American marketplace.
If you are a fan of investigative journalism, something practices less and less by our corporately-controlled press, I urge you to give Schlosser a go.
--The Long Emergency, by James Kunstler (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005)
I read this early in 2005 and it opened my eyes up to a future that could be radically different, as we near (or some would argue we already have and are on the downward slope) the peak of oil production in the world.
Kunstler is a bit of a “crank”, but anyone not selling the optimistic, pop-a-Prozac, sunny side-‘o-the-street snake oil of the day is characterized that way.
Should be read by anyone who cares to live in the reality-based community.
--Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back, by Jane Holtz Kay
Another book that takes America to task for its easy-motoring ways. Holtz Kay offers a well-written and readable indictment of a nation that bases its travel policy entirely upon a model that is not sustainable for the long-haul. A good compliment to Kunstler.
--A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis, by Diane Ackerman (Vintage, 1998)
If you’ve heard of creative non-fiction, but are not quite sure what it is, Ackerman is one of the best of the genre.
--As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
I tried, I truly did, to understand the genius of Faulkner. I mean if Oprah’s Book Club could read Faulkner, couldn’t I? I blogged about it prior.
--The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, by Davy Rothbart (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 2005)
One of the great "new" writers out there. Rothbart also is the genius behind Found Magazine.
--Left Out: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, by Joshua Frank (Common Courage Press, 2004)
A concise indictment of the Anybody But Bush crowd and Democrats in general. Frank offers a fresh voice, infused with intelligence and reason, in a political world where both are found in short supply.
--Edson, by Bill Morrissey (Knopf, 1996)
Singer/songwriter Morrissey puts down the guitar and picks up the pen for the first time. An intimate look at the working class in a fictional New Hampshire mill town. The central character, 37-year-old Henry Corvine, might very well be Morrissey's nod to the autobiographical.
Comprised of believable characters, this was one of those "finds" that make reading so much fun.
--July, July, by Tim O’Brien (Penguin, 2003)
The exact opposite of Morrissey's book. I brought both Morrissey's book, and this one with me to Florida. Expecting so much more from O'Brien, as he's one of American fiction's bright lights, this book absolutely sucked! With characters you'd just as soon throw from a rooftop, than feel sorry for, this one was an insipid read and I doubt I'll go to O'Brien's inkwell any time soon.
--Florida: A Short History, by Michael Gannon (University Press of Florida, 2003-reprint)
Picked this one up in Florida, while there in November. Read most of it on the flight home; nice treatment of the state's interesting and colorful history.
--Out of Their League, by Dave Meggyyesy (Warner paperback, 1971)
Former pro football player's indictment of the dehumanizing nature of pro football. Meggysey, who played in the late 60s, retired from the game after the 1969 season. Through a series of meetings and events, Meggyesy becomes radicalized in his personal beliefs and politics and when he can no longer go along with being treated like a child and merely an item to be exposed, he walks away from the money, and also the abuse that was and still is the NFL.
I picked this book up for 50 cents at a library book fair. Obviously dated, it offers an interesting glimpse back at a time when America seemed to be striding in the right direction, but has since disavowed and returned to being comfortable with the status quo.
--The Way Life Should Be: Stories by Contemporary Maine Writers (Warren Machine Company, 2005)
Friend and fellow publisher Ari Meil's fine Maine fiction compilation. 17 writers, 17 stories, and one great state. Support your local independent press!
--Maine & Me: Ten Years of Downeast Adventures, by Liz Peavey (Downeast Books, ?)
--Outta’ My Way: An Odd Life, Lived Loudly, by Liz Peavey (Warren Machine Company, 2005)
The latest offering by Warren Maching Company. This gathers Peavey's always funny and often pointed columns from the late, great Casco Bay Weekly, a muckraking rag in the truest sense. The Downeast offering, was a compilation of her articles from the popular Maine magazine's archives.
--Among Schoolchildren, by Tracy Kidder (Harper Perennial, 1990)
Kidder is one of America's best non-fiction writers. This one, along with Lewis' Moneyball, were my favorite non-fiction reads of the year.
--Moneyball, by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton, 2003)
I recently lauded this one, by Lewis. Whether you love baseball, or not, this is great writing and recommended reading.
Happy New Years!! May 2006 spur you to read more books.