News and Tribune

July 5, 2013

STAWAR: Mo’ Meta Reading

By TERRY STAWAR
Local columnist

I got into the swing of summer reading last week when I was in a bookstore picking out a birthday present for myself from my daughter and her family. The store had a great selection, but it was really hard to choose something right there in front of my grandchildren. I started wishing they had just given me an Amazon gift card, so I wouldn’t feel so pressured. 

Not only did I want to pick something that I wanted to read, but I didn’t want to look foolish, old fashioned, or boring. I ended up choosing “Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove.” This is a hot-off-the-press autobiographical work by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, one of the founders of the hip-hop musical group The Roots. 

The Roots are the unlikely house band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and are soon to be the official band for the “Tonight Show,” when Fallon replaces Jay Leno in the fall. 

I’ve recently heard Questlove being interviewed on the radio and I’ve read a couple of reviews touting the book, so I’ve been eager to read it. More importantly, however, the book seemed hip enough, as to not provoke derision or condensation from the younger generation (aka peanut gallery). 

I have always contended that recommending a book to someone or even letting someone look through your library can be painfully revealing. Picking out a book can be just as bad, as your book preferences can tell an awful lot about you. 

Shortly after choosing my birthday book, I read the Time Magazine summer issue, which has an article entitled “Best Books for the Beach.” In this piece, a group of young novelists describe how summer reading influenced them and their writing. For example, novelist Curtis Sittenfield (author of “Sisterland”) tells about the summer of 1991 when he read Pat Conroy’s novels, Haitian novelist Edwide Danticat recounts her discovery of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” the summer she turned 13 years old, and Phillip Meyer (author of “The Son”) describes stumbling upon Hemmingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” when he was 17 years old. 

I wonder if many people have actually had such mystical summer reading experiences or if they are pretty much limited to these creative writer types. When I was 13 years old, I was still reading Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books. 

Perhaps the closest I’ve ever come to being inspired by a book was when I was a freshman in college, I bought a large volume containing the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes and read it over Christmas vacation. 

The Time article also has summer reading suggestions from their book critic and several celebrities, along with a list of the books that they consider to be “The 12 Ultimate Summer Reads” — best-sellers like “Love Story,” “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “The DaVinci Code” and “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” I’ve read a lot of these and liked most of them, but they seem a little dated and more like guilty pleasures, rather than truly inspirational or transformational.

In 2009, National Public Radio listeners voted in a “Best Beach Books Ever” poll. NPR’s top 12 beach books overlapped with Time’s “Ultimate 12” only with regard to a Harry Potter book. NPR’s list included more classics such as “Pride and Prejudice,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Great Gatsby” and also appeared to be more gender balanced, with books like “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.”

My wife Diane, who manages a used bookstore for the mental health center, says that summer readers usually pick their books in May or June, but may start as early as April, if the weather gets hot, like it did last year. Diane and I usually take some books along with us on vacations, but we seldom have much time to read them. 

When it comes to children, summer reading has a more serious purpose than simply a diversion for the beach. In her classic study conducted in 1978, Barbara Heyns, a New York University sociologist, examined the impact of summer reading on 3,000 middle school students in Atlanta’s public schools. She found that children who read at least six books during the summer months maintained or improved their reading skills, while kids who didn’t read at all saw their reading skills decrease by as much as an entire grade level — the infamous “summer slide.” Summer reading also systematically increased students’ vocabulary test scores, regardless of the student’s socioeconomic status.

Such findings have been consistently replicated over the years and a recent study at Dominican University again found that children who participated in summer programs scored approximately half a grade level higher in reading than their peers who do not. Also, instead of losing knowledge and skills during the summer, participants routinely displayed improvement.

Library-based summer reading programs started more than 100 years ago and today more than 95 percent of public libraries offer them. Such programs can also provide multiple benefits for adults. They nurture a sense of community and promote social interaction with friends and neighbors, they encourage reading for pleasure, reduce stress, set an example for young people, sharpen reading and language skills, and provide opportunities for lifelong learning. These activities are especially beneficial for elders and recent immigrants. 

 More and more, summer reading is electronic as people drag their tablets, Kindles and Nooks to the beach. Although about 75 percent of all my reading now consists of ebooks read on my iPad, I’ve still clung to my print books as a sort of a security blanket. Perhaps that’s why I was interested in reading about Stanley Fish, a professor at Florida International University, who recently wrote a column in the New York Times about how he managed to sell off his paper books. He had amassed his large library over his 50 years in higher education. The professed reason for Fish’s downsizing was his move to smaller quarters. 

Fish claims he felt no regret, panic or relief related to the divestiture. He says the event was like “checking out of a motel” and it “barely registered” as he was preoccupied with buying a new carpet. I have typically been on the other side of this equation. I remember taking a large number of books when one professor retired and left his entire library up for grabs at a college where I was teaching part-time. 

I also remember being shocked when I ran across a bunch of professional books in a used book store that had the name of a psychologist I knew who had written in them. I couldn’t believe that he had actually sold most of his books when he moved to the West Coast. Until quite recently I have still been carting around books that deep down I know that I will never look at again. Being able to disengage from your books must be an ability that comes with maturity. 

Fish admits that he retired his books first, probably in symbolic anticipation of his own retirement, as he gradually sensed that he would no longer need them. 

I’m still not sure I could ditch all my books as unceremoniously as Fish did, although I have been a lot freer in recent years about getting rid of some of them. I’ve built up a rationalization that it’s OK to give away my older books and even throw away old journals because they’ve all been digitized anyway. As long as I have a decent computer, I’ll be fine. It’s like they’re all still there, virtually waiting for me. 

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring, the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Check out his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.