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Send me a man who reads

The more [cough] seasoned [cough] readers in the audience will recognize the headline for this post as the tag from a series the International Paper Company ran in magazines back in the 1960s. It intended to foster the idea that readers were inherently better employees and more successful.

It was also repunctuated by some wag to represent a more characteristic American attitude: “Send me a man. Who reads?”

I think of that slogan at the start of every semester, when I distribute to my editing students a form on which they are invited to give me contact information and a few facts about themselves to help me get some sense of who they are. One of the things I ask for is the title of the last book they read for amusement—the last book they read that was not assigned for a class.

I have learned, in the interest of economizing classroom time, to add, “If it takes you longer than thirty second to remember the last book you read, leave that item blank.”

Someone always does. Sometimes a handful.

The idea that we have undergraduates who don’t read books distresses me. Of course, I know that they do read. They don’t spend quite all their time keeping up with the Kardashians. They read in print and electronically. They read articles.* They read blog posts. They exchange these items on Facebook and elsewhere.

But reading a book, even a popular novel, requires some measure of sustained attention, and reading a serious book requires concentration and intellectual effort to comprehend and absorb the material. This is the same kind of concentration and assimilation that are required if one is to edit texts analytically, and that is why I have an interest in my students’ reading habits.

Just as one worries about students who are conservative in college—what in God’s name will they be like when they’re fifty?—one worries about students who are not building up their intellectual capital and skills at a time when they have leisure and opportunity.

 

*This morning I saw an undergraduate student reaching for a newspaper. A printed newspaper! It was almost as exciting as if I had spotted a passenger pigeon feeding.

And please, I’m not just bashing undergraduates here. Many of my colleagues and acquaintances do not seem to be hitting the books all that hard, either.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:54 PM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

Interesting. A handful? Wow. Though I'm not quite seasoned enough to remember the slogan, I am seasoned enough to truthfully say that there hasn't been a time in the last 50 years that I have not been reading at least one book for amusement. And that includes college which, for engineers like me, is not a time of "leisure and opportunity." Reading books is the one recreational activity in my life that I can't imagine not doing. And not that you asked your blog readers, my answer to your class question would be "Sense and Sensibility" and before that "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet."

It may only be folk mythology, but I've heard that many Americans never open a book after they leave school. I've always hoped that that was not true.

Many, evidently, not during.

My sons grew up receiving books for birthdays and Christmas, and now they return the favor. I just finished reading a gift book, "Before I Go to Sleep," a first novel by S.J. Watson. Mysteries and amnesia stories are not my usual fare, but this one was something special, particularly as the male author was writing in a woman's voice.

When my younger son was in the waiting room before some oral surgery, I found the office staff staring at us. One of the women whispered to me how unusual it was to see a teen-aged boy actually reading a book!

I'll go ahead and admit right now that as someone pursuing an interest in the editing field, in the three years since graduating college I've read maybe three whole books for amusements. Yeah I realize that's not good and most of my friends do as well, I just always end up choosing to spend my time with other forms of entertainment.

The one thing that has at least gotten me to TRY more books in the last couple years has been iBooks. I don't know if that's good or bad.

I know reading for pleasure has declined steadily in recent(?) years, but I'm encouraged by all the people I see reading books on the bus (I'm in San Francisco). Go ride public transit if you want that same, probably false, sense of hope. As for me, I average a novel every two weeks and only wish the availability of library e-books weren't so dismal.

People who are conservative in college will, at age 50, be people who read for pleasure, take books with them everywhere and believe that adults should make their own decisions without interference from any branch of government.Or newspaper editor. As Lily Tomlin once pointed out in her character of Edith Ann, "And that's the truth."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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