I’m in the midst of reading Lea Wait’s books for children (she also writes mysteries for adults). I’ve finished Finest Kind, I’m in the midst of Wintering Well, I’m eagerly looking forward to Seaward Born, and I’m on the waiting list for Stopping to Home. The two books I’ve read so far are plumb full of details about life in Maine in the 1830s. I marvel at how richly Ms. Wait has painted the various facets of life.
In particular, her characters Jake (Finest Kind) and Will (Wintering Well) are prodigious readers. Jake’s family owns a Bible and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. Will has “read the Bible through twice and almost memorized McGuffey’s Reader.” When Will and his sister Cassie move to Wiscasset, the largest town near their farm, Will has access to books from the Social Library. He is so caught up in Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle that it takes his mind off the leg he has lost.
Books were precious to people who lived in the 1830s. They couldn’t order them online. They couldn’t drive their cars to a bookseller to choose a book to read that week. They couldn’t put the book they were waiting to read on hold online. Most people owned one or two books. Although Maine had social libraries in the early 1800s, these were formed by citizens who exchanged their own books. Public libraries didn’t appear broadly until the late 1800s. Many cities charged money for books at their lending libraries. Books were much harder to come by.
We have access to books and we’re letting that slip away, bit by bit, by not paying attention.
“Why do we need libraries?” one writer questioned me at a workshop. “I can order anything I want from Amazon. Libraries are outmoded.”
At Cushman Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, students no longer have access to bound books in their school library.
“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’
Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a “learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.”
Books can be read on digital readers or online at laptop stations. Is this the way the future will be shaped? Be sure to read the whole article in The Boston Globe so you can draw your own conclusions. Do we need bound books?
In many shapes and forms, we have access to books that is unparalleled in history. Young and old, degreed and non-degreed, rich and poor … we can all have access to the information of the ages. Why are we so worried about people, young and old, continuing to read?