It’s inauguration day as I write this, and joy and hope are breaking out all over. We can do better! Let’s get serious! I feel it too–I can’t help it. Bidding farewell to Bush and Cheney is huge. Electing an African-American president is immense. I don’t expect President Obama to set the world to rights immediately, unlike the 70 percent who, according to an Associated Press poll, expect him to fix the economy in one year. But there is something that belongs on that lengthy to-do list of his, along with rolling back Bush’s midnight regulations, putting the torturers on trial and for God’s sake brokering a fair and lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Help books. I know it sounds sappy and do-goodish and earnest. But do it.
Books are in crisis in so many ways. Take public libraries. During the Great Depression, in Mayor La Guardia’s New York, the public library was open seven days a week. Now, all over the country, libraries are closing or cutting their already shrunken budgets. The Free Library of Philadelphia is shutting down eleven of its fifty-four branches. Trenton, San Diego and Phoenix are just a few of the municipalities that are looking at staff reductions, shorter hours and serious cutbacks in acquisitions. In New York State, Governor Paterson is proposing a $20 million cut, one-fifth of the library budget. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg, no La Guardia, is proposing cuts that will reduce service from six to five-and-a-half days. And urban centers are not the only places that are suffering. Newton, Massachusetts–a wealthy suburb in a sky-blue state–has closed four library branches.
It’s not that people aren’t using libraries anymore, preferring to hang out at a Barnes & Noble superstore or do their reading online. Library use is up–as belts tighten, people who might have bought a book in flusher times suddenly remember this fantastic free civic resource. Then, too, one thing unemployed people have is time, and libraries are free, welcoming and comforting spaces: you don’t feel judged or like you should be buying something. And these days, libraries offer more than books. Did you know that according to the American Library Association, 73 percent of libraries provide the only free Internet access in their communities? In rural areas it’s 83 percent. For many out-of-work people looking for jobs, for low-income students who don’t have the Internet at home, the library provides the only access to information technology they can afford.
The starving of public libraries is just one piece of the problem, though. School libraries are shrinking too–sometimes there’s no money for books, sometimes there’s no money for staff and sometimes overcrowded enrollments eat up the space itself. Ideally, every public school classroom should have enough books for independent reading during school hours and also to lend out for home reading: vast numbers of low-income students have no other access to books. Instead, teachers who want their students to love reading are forced to beg for donations at websites like donorschoose.org and iloveschools.org. Then we wonder why reading scores are so low and why kids enter college unable to deal with challenging texts! And we are expected to cheer the return of PBS’s The Electric Company, which claims to “promote” reading by getting kids to watch a TV show.
We are witnessing a rapid collapse in the economy of reading in both the public and for-profit realms. The print media business is in big trouble. Publishing houses are slashing jobs; Houghton Mifflin recently announced it was no longer accepting manuscripts. As ads dry up, magazines are folding or at least slimming down–pretty soon they’ll be able to slip Time and Newsweek under your door, like a takeout menu. Newspapers are crashing all around us, and one of the things they are doing, in a desperate bid to save money, is cutting back their Sunday book review sections: the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Hartford Courant have all reduced their book sections. Recent rumblings from the Washington Post suggest that new executive editor Marcus Brauchli may close down Book World, leaving The New York Times Book Review as the last remaining stand-alone section devoted to books. Before long you won’t even know about the books that you can’t afford to buy and that the library can’t afford to stock.
Most of the discussion of the book crisis focuses on the challenge to print from new technologies–blogs, the Kindle, Google Books Search–and from the ease with which one can buy used, remaindered and hugely discounted books online (sales for which the writer gets no royalties, by the way). In this analysis, government support for publishing is a bit like public subsidies for the harpsichord industry. But the book business is also a casualty of the same forces ravaging the rest of the economy: hypercharged multinational corporations, hedge fund schemes and other financial shenanigans. If the government can bail out the banks that are so deeply implicated in our current troubles–and is about to give them another huge helping of cash, even though no one really knows what the banks did with the first installment beyond shoring up their stock prices and making new acquisitions–why can’t it help books and other print media? Why can’t it support libraries and schools and publishing by stocking the public bookshelves with inviting new books and hiring staff to keep the doors open? Let every teacher select a box of new books for the classroom; give every low-income student a dictionary, an atlas and a selection of books to read. Middle-class parents know kids need books of their own: why do we imagine low-income kids need less? Give every school enough textbooks so that each student has what he or she needs for all courses. Stock every school and public library with up-to-date encyclopedias and other research tools.
“Shovel-ready” is the term of the hour, as the Obama administration prepares to pour billions into construction projects, many of which, like more highways, are of limited social utility. How about some projects that are reader-ready?