Mary Jo Anderson writes about the false compassion of euthanasia in Crisis Magazine:
The truth that lies underneath the “rights” rhetoric is who will decide what constitutes a quality of life and at what cost. Theodore Dalrymple is an English doctor, psychiatrist and author of OurCulture—What’s Left of It. Dalrymple wrote, “Euthanasia has a tendency to slide from the voluntary to the compulsory, as people increasingly make judgments on behalf of others as to what is a human life worth living.”
This is a temptation that many human rights advocates can be susceptible to: in desiring to help others, we often choose to reform them into our own image. America’s compassionate conservatives often fall prey to this tendency: out of a sincere desire to help people, they seek to re-shape another person’s life or will into their own.
Anderson’s post is highlighting a new bill passed in Belgium on February 13, one that permits euthanasia for young children. “We can no longer pin a wig over the bald truth of the culture of death,” she writes. For pro-life advocates, the move smacks of the same imperative judgments that characterize so many pro-choice arguments (i.e. the mother, specifically, is allowed to decide what’s best for the child and her family).
This bill is an example of what Anderson calls “a right to die”: it’s “thought to be a compassionate, advanced policy,” giving people the ability to decide just how much pain and hardship they are willing to suffer. Of course, making such a decision necessitates we assume a sort of omniscient posture: if we decide whether life is still worth living, we must have a very specific and (we hope) accurate understanding of what life is about, what it’s worth, and how much pain we can handle.
This is how much of the right handles non-life matters. Of course, conservatives may gasp in horror at the thought of aborting or euthanizing babies. But conservatives may also look at homeless people on the street, and tell them, “You should go get a job.” Isn’t this also a case of gross assumption—of putting someone else in your shoes, and commanding them to walk according to your path, willpower, and context? When we decide one country “deserves” democracy, or another should be “liberated” from its oppressors—often such words contain grains of truth. But what we really mean is, “Let us (our military, more often than not) come over and fix your problems, so that you can be just like us.”
Religious thought contains an important truth on this subject: most believe that humans are not omniscient. We were created by Another, a Being with infinite knowledge and discernment. We did not determine our birth. For many, this truth implies that we should not determine our end: our times are in God’s hands, as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 31.
This means we cannot look at our brothers and assume we know their best life (or death) course. Jesus told the story of a tax collector and Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14—the Pharisee thanked God that he was not “like this tax collector, this sinner.” But in reality, it was the tax collector, humble and contrite, who went home justified.
When Jesus had mercy and compassion on an individual, interestingly enough, He often gave them what they asked for. There were cases in which He told people, instead, of sins they needed to leave or truths they needed to confront. But in each and every case, He loved first.
Compassion: it’s difficult to turn such an emotion into right action. So often, we are separated in thought and soul from truly knowing others. We think we know what is right or good, but this lack of omniscience makes it difficult to rightly run people’s lives. Perhaps we should not try—instead, we should just love first.
Elise Italiano fears that the push to “personalize” education through technology will, in actuality, individualize education and hamper classroom relationships. She wrote a thoughtful piece Thursday at The Public Discourse on the subject:
The very design of these technologies is to multitask, not to concentrate, analyze, contemplate, or wonder. When a teacher is lecturing, students can easily disengage, looking at other apps (some for school and others surely for entertainment), perusing websites, and checking email. Schools that value teachers’ wisdom, expertise, and guidance will wind up undermining their work by asking them not only to deliver meaningful content but to monitor students’ attention constantly. When competing for attention with a device, teachers are implicitly asked to become entertainers.
Her points are valid and well reasoned. Technology’s distractions could very well harm students’ ability to concentrate, reflect, and be still. Additionally, teachers may find themselves scrambling to procure the “next new thing,” for fear of losing their students’ interest: once you decide to use the latest technology to connect with students, you must be prepared to keep up with the trends. Thus there is a cost—monetarily and intellectually—to using technology in the classroom.
Italiano also sees a communal cost in technology’s isolating tendencies. Tablets, phones, and laptops make it easier for students to “tune out.” The focus in a technological classroom changes from student-to-student and/or student-to-teacher to a student-computer relationship, with the teacher occasionally breaking into this primary bond. The human equation in education, including the use of words to bond and instruct, becomes secondary to the visual, interactive, and individual.
Despite her emphasis on communal learning, Italiano also stresses students’ need for silence and solitude—for the “still, quiet, and intentional pursuit of truth.” This is one reason I think school and public libraries are absolutely vital to the education experience, and need to be preserved. They serve as “quiet zones,” where students can step away from the hubbub. School libraries could even enforce a “no cell phones” rule, where mobile devices and other distractions are left at the door.
The above points in Italiano’s story are all very strong. But one of her comments seemed a bit simplistic: she writes, “Though it is becoming clear that technology is changing the way we learn, it is not yet clear that it is improving it.”
This statement seems to denigrate the true good technology can serve in education. The use of technology in classrooms may be concerning in some ways, but it is not completely harmful. We merely need to consider the ways and times in which it is utilized. Some classes can use technology to great effect: there are a host of curricula with excellent interactive online tools. For science, math, and language classes, such auditory and visual materials make difficult concepts easier to absorb. Students can study in the way most suited to their learning style.
But these tools seem most useful outside of class, where students can study and peruse at their own speed. Class time, then, becomes a place where students can ask teachers’ advice and input on study material, whether online or in print. Teachers can help students troubleshoot and explain deeper answers to classes as a whole—thus transforming the online tools into interactive, communal assets. Rather than creating solitary learners, such a method could encourage group learning.
At root, education is a shared exercise. In order to truly foster classroom interactions and relationships, teachers mustn’t neglect the Socratic method. Teachers’ thoughtful questions, joined by rebounding answers and arguments from students, encourage a deeper connection with subject matter. The more students are forced to analyze, answer, and discuss, the more they will learn and remember.
Whenever the discussion of education arises, Plato’s Cave analogy comes to mind. The best, most fulfilling work a teacher can do is to move students from the impressions and façade of the Cave into the pure, clear sunlight of Truth. Education, at its fullest, is only secondarily interested in a student’s career. At root, it sinks into the marrow of their personhood and understanding of reality. Thus, teachers must constantly ask themselves: which tools best advance Truth, and which detract from it? How can I best advance students toward a clearer, deeper understanding of the world? If technology truly serves to advance this endeavor, then it should be used, by all means. But if its pleasantries and toys distract from deeper discussion or knowledge, we must discard it—like chains from about our necks.
In a lovely piece at the Poetry Foundation, “Prioritizing Place,” Sandra Beasley ponders the rootedness (or roaming) of various poets. Does it help poets’ art to remain in one place? She writes:
Region need not monopolize your motifs. To paraphrase Molly Peacock when she talks about received forms, regionalism is not a box to cram your poems into; regionalism provides the bones that let the skeleton dance. Some geographic affiliations are involuntary, tied to childhood or marriage years. The poet may learn to love the unbeautiful, working through distaste toward deeper understanding of a community.
Yet at the same time, Beasley’s piece looks at region as the clay, and poet as the model. She quotes Richard Hugo, a poet of the Pacific Northwest, who once told a pupil, “Everybody’s a regional poet to some extent, but the region from which you write is merely the lens. The real region is you.”
Contrast this with the attitude of poet Wendell Berry, whose work seems to suggest that place is the shaper, and we are its clay. His works all center in an around a singly community which, in its tangled and sundry doings, created a rhythm of human relationship. Driving roots into community, living amongst others with constancy, is something different than living within region as mere lens.
Berry’s poetic living requires love: love for land, and for people. Without this love, it is very easy to escape into other territory—whether it be physical roaming, or an inner withdrawal. There is nothing to suggest in Beasley’s piece that place has a sort of authoritative cadence or order by which its inhabitants live. She writes of towns that have “been made great largely by its fixed stars, their immediate gaze and winking light.”
This is where Phillip Jensen’s excellent insights at Cardus come in. This farmer writes of the “liturgy” inherent in creation, the rhythm and song embedded within the very fabric of the universe. By farming and building a relationship with the land, he writes, he has found himself more fully “in tune” with this song: “This liturgy of creation has been sung since the beginning but is today in need of formal recognition and articulation because our lives have become so distant from its song.”
The poet should always be looking for the rhythm, the cadence undergirding common life. This, Jensen suggests, is something that can be found—not exclusively, but with greater depth—in and about creation. His suggestions in the article (to explore wilderness, work the land, wonder in creation, and worship through liturgy) should, in this sense, be useful to any writer or poet.
One thinks of King David, the famous “warrior poet” whose poetry often revolved around creation and its awe-inspiring beauty—“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” he wrote in Psalm 8:2-4.
The city, notes Jensen, has beauties and rhythms of its own. However, he adds a worthy note of caution to the urban dweller: “…The separation that city life, when unbalanced, can engender between our lives and creation, coupled with an insidious utilitarianism, means that we rarely hear the song and when we do we think the song is about us.”
This seems to be the pitfall of Beasley’s piece: she has heard the song, or at least a few notes of it, but seems to think this song is stemming from listeners—when in fact, they are merely channeling its presence.
At the beginning of Oscar Wilde’s classic “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Algernon Moncrieff declares, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” The whole play embodies this fact: intertwined with deception, intrigue, and revelation, Wilde’s characters build from deception to revelation. Now extended through March, Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company adaptation (Lansburgh Theatre) is delightful.
Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” set in Victorian England, centers on the stories of gentlemen Ernest Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff: two pleasant but lazy friends who enjoy London society. Ernest actually visits London under a false name—his real identity is that of Jack Worthing, country estate owner, guardian to an 18-year-old orphan, and dignified member of the local community. For years, he has pretended to have a scandalous younger brother named “Ernest,” thus creating an alibi for his own adventures and scrapes in London. Whenever Jack goes to visit his “wicked brother,” he becomes the young dandy himself. Meanwhile, Algernon (or “Algy”) is Wilde’s own brilliant and foppish self-projection. Algy also has faked an identity: he has invented a poor invalid friend named “Bunbury,” who enables him to escape tedious social engagements. Neither man sees anything wrong with his sham: Ernest’s fake brother enables him to escape his country responsibilities and enjoy the city’s dazzling social sphere. For Algy, the façade serves as an artistic and delightful trick he can play on his friends and family.
At the beginning of the play, “Ernest” arrives in the city intent on proposing to Algy’s lovely cousin, Gwendolen. But a subsequent proposal reveals an inherent and perplexing obstacle: while Gwendolen is eager and ready to marry Ernest, her eagerness in part (or whole) rests on his invented name: “We live in an age of ideals,” she tells him. “My ideal,” she continues, “has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.”
It’s an incredibly ironic moment in the play. Gwendolen does not care for real “earnestness” in a husband—what truly matters is the mere label, the name. This skewed idealism is the focus of many Wildean jabs throughout the production: almost every character has a set of ideals they hold high, yet their actions are often consciously antithetical to these ideals. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, emphasizes birth, breeding, and money over everything else—but in a moment of truth near the end of the play, she admits, “When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind.” Read More…
I saved The Friends of Meager Fortune, the second novel I’ve read by Canadian Catholic author David Adams Richards, for the polar vortex. If anything can make Boston in January seem warm, it’s this relentlessly grim tale of the last days of man-and-horse lumbering, with horses crashing through the ice and bloodied hands freezing on the reins.
I’m conflicted about recommending the book. What is good in it is immensely powerful. The story of the doomed love of local failure/hero/failure again Owen Johnson and charity case/outcast Camellia Dupuis is suspenseful and deeply moving. Camellia is a luminous innocent who never becomes cloying. She’s gentle, in a profoundly ungentle world.
Even more moving, though, is the portrayal of the grim, death-shadowed men who work for Owen up on Good Friday Mountain, cutting down logs under shockingly dangerous and miserable conditions. The book would be worth reading just for the depictions of the horses, their pride and suffering, as they work themselves to death under the care of proud and suffering men. The economic suspense (will Johnson’s timber haul fail?) and the suspense of the work itself (who will survive the grim conditions on Good Friday?) are as tense as the romance, and the plot twists in these areas made me gasp several times.
And Richards acidly depicts the gossip and judgment of a small town, the way the gazes of our neighbors can destroy us. Read More…
To be honest, apart from scanning for tidbits on a particular topic, I haven’t read a “big” Washington insider memoir at the time it came out since Henry Kissinger’s. I was glad then to see that veteran journalist Tom Ricks describe Robert Gates’s Duty as “probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever” because my reading in it made me wonder whether I’d been missing something important all these years. Gates’s book is extremely good, full of detail, knowledge, and apparent candor. Gates is an exemplar of a national public servant, patriotic, not flashy, makes no effort to present himself as a big conceptualizer, but someone who is able to generate informed opinions and options on an wide array of complicated subjects, while being able to get along with others at the highest levels of government. He’s the smart guy in the room who doesn’t seem to have his own agenda. He’s been in the room (as “notetaker”) when Zbigniew Brzezinski was trying to negotiate with the revolutionary government of Iran in 1979, and thirty years later as Secretary of Defense, alongside Ben Bernanke as the most important holdover from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
Early attention devoted to the book has focused on Gates’s claim that Obama seemed less than enthusiastic about the “mission” in Afghanistan, while deferring in practice to the military’s judgement about what should be done. Despite inevitable denials, the truth of this assertion seemed almost too obvious, perhaps to Obama’s supporters most of all. Would it really have served Obama’s purposes to pick an open fight with the the top brass over Afghanistan early in his administration? Of course not. He went along with what the generals wanted.
What struck me as most important in Gates’s memoir were the frequent references to the dangers of allowing the United States to get sucked into into wars serving other country’s agendas, especially in the Mideast. These are, remember, the concerns not of a peacenik professor but a veteran Cold Warrior after a long career at the center of the American national security establishment. They make up an extremely important data point about where mainstream American security professionals see danger arising—and one which varies quite a bit from ostensible concerns of Congress or the most influential national media. I would argue that worry about being drawn into wars on behalf of allies, (or perhaps “allies”) is (alongside such estimable things as duty, honor, country) the central theme of Gates’s work.
Here is a sample of the passages pushing this theme: Read More…
When considering the future of fiction, many speak somewhat disdainfully of “fan fiction” and other less original or artistic works. But Slate contributor Hugh Howey believes fan fiction is actually a classically respected literary genre:
Lovers of the new and immutable novel may fear the end times, but ironically the end times themselves were a work of fan fiction. The four Gospels were written well after the times they describe, and each has its own take on similar events. (It used to bother me that the Gospels disagreed on so much. But then I discovered Batman comics and saw how often the Caped Crusader’s origins and backstory also changed over time.) Shakespeare made a career out of fan fiction. Wealthy patrons would request a new stab at a familiar story, and the Bard would comply. Or he would draw upon historical facts and people to make fiction from the real.
Thus, those who believe fan fiction is discreditable to the arts must accept the fact that it’s a historical form. Howey argues that fan fiction books are not easy stories—though the ideas used to shape the books may be “used,” he writes, “Ideas are cheap. Stories are dear … We are all telling the same story with slight variations.”
There’s another intersecting perspective one might bring to bear on the increasing popularity of fan fiction. Although we all aspire to literary greatness, it is not easy to write brilliant material. Few of us will ever write something of considerable originality. For most of us, our best work will be written “on the shoulders of giants,” to borrow a phrase from Russell Kirk. Some of us must content ourselves with mediocrity, if that mediocrity will enable true genius to shine through our weak yet willing hands.
Front Porch Republic author James Matthew Wilson excellently explains this idea of aspirational mediocrity in a Sunday post:
To keep alive a tradition, to continue to produce mildly good poems, and reasonably memorable concertos, capable of rousing the ear and the mind to attention, thought, and pleasure — these things are good in themselves. To perpetuate a traditional practice enriches the storehouse of being while also stitching together the eternal society of the dead, living, and those still unborn in such a way that past, present, and future remain habitable places, where human voice can still hear and answer human voice. It keeps words, habits, and techniques in common, it cultivates, tempers, and preserves a climate of opinion, whatever the other storms of history.
Few authors, writers, and journalists will admit their work is mediocre (whether fan fiction or otherwise). At root, we want to write classics. But perhaps our mediocrity will help transmit a tradition, as Wilson writes: “To live within and participate in a tradition is, again, to keep something alive and to draw things and persons together, across time, in a community of knowledge and love.” Does fan fiction accomplish this? Not always; but within its diverse and sundry works, nuggets of a valuable literary tradition can flourish and grow.
Many modern readers push themselves through speed-reading courses. If they haven’t time for a full course, there are Youtube videos and websites on the subject. Now, in the age of digital reading, there are additional speed-reading gadgets: tools like Feedly and Twitter enable users to absorb small bits of text in a speedy fashion. A bunch of speed-reading apps have come into vogue, enabling users to read on the clock with greater efficiency.
Efficiency. It’s the word of the age, according to Alasdair MacIntyre: in After Virtue, he said “efficiency” is our most prized virtue. While the Greeks of Homer’s time valued virtues like duty and honor, our age preferred more “managerial” virtues, efficiency being the most valued of all.
But have we lost something in our endeavors for efficiency? Curator contributor Brett Beasley says yes. In a Monday post, he mused on our changing reading patterns, as our culture passes from speed-reading to half-reading, to complete negligence:
“Sharing” is the buzzword of our age, in which nearly all of what we read can be linked to, tweeted, emailed, attached, and downloaded within seconds. Mass digitization projects like Google Books and the Digital Public Library of America place more words within our grasp each hour, yet meanwhile we continue to hear reports that nearly a third of Americans did not read as much as one book in the past year. It’s strange, isn’t it? Reading often feels as easy as breathing. When I go on a road trip, I don’t have to make myself read the words written on the road signs and billboards. It just happens. But when it comes to anything longer than a few hundred words, the text seems to thicken and we have to push back against a surprising amount of resistance.
Why is it that we can spend significant time browsing menus and reading Buzzfeed articles, but roll our eyes when we scroll to the bottom of a new story and see the words “Page 1 of 12”? What is it about length that intimidates and frustrates us so?
At least in part, this annoyance is rooted in that modern striving for “efficiency.” We want our laughs, lunches, and letters as quickly as possible. We are increasingly aware of time’s incessant ticking: from the days in centuries past when church bells heralded the hours, minutes now flick by on our phone and computer screens. We own it, in a way that our ancestors did not. Countdown apps show us every millisecond whizzing past, set to our own schedules and deadlines.
Thus we, along with Beasley, remember “many thinkers and artists throughout history who have written and worked with a momento mori, or reminder of death, nearby. While we might pride ourselves on the nearly instantaneous speed with which we can deploy and make use of information online, in the end our time and our attention are finite, and we have to make difficult decisions about what is valuable enough to spend our time on.”
This is our second problem: in the age of information, reading is literally everywhere. News stands, Google news, even the nearest coffee shop—one needn’t go far to become bombarded with words. What shall you read first? What’s worth reading? What if you waste time reading something awful, when you could have been reading something else? “Stream, cloud, dust; now more than ever our text and our reading times are in need of a shape and an architecture,” writes Beasley. “Intentionally or unintentionally, each of us has a reading practice that shapes the way we live, think, and interact.”
What shape and architecture should we give to our reading life? One thing is certain: the way we read will affect the way we absorb information, and thus will shape the very way we live. Should we read Drudge-style—absorbing the most interesting headlines of the moment, discarding length for sensationalism? Or should we read in a more bookish, antiquated style: throwing “efficiency” to the wind, cherry-picking books we think will be the best, ignoring anything that isn’t timeless or classic?
Some would assume the latter is the “conservative” position. But it seems the best path is a narrow trail between the two extremes. There is pertinent everyday information we must absorb to make pertinent decisions. But essential information doesn’t always foster deeper human flourishing and intellectual growth. We should digest the pertinent with efficiency, but not for efficiency’s sake.
Efficiency is a means to a greater end, a greater virtue: that of wisdom. Wisdom is “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” To have wisdom, therefore, one must have basic knowledge of the pertinent. But “good judgment” doesn’t come from gulping down news in a frenzied fashion. Good judgment requires thoughtful, prolonged, and careful meditation. It requires outside opinions, secondary sources, and at least some research. It requires a depth of reading inspired by thoughtfulness, as well as inquisitiveness. In order to get wisdom, slow reading is necessary: a careful, deliberate inculcation of timeless truths.
The real trick, then, is determining what to read fast, and what to read slowly. Beasley references the reading traditions of the monks, and we can learn something from their style. Their reading during the Middle Ages, he says, “was the centerpiece of daily life. Several hours of reading (or lectio) often fell in the middle of the day, with the rest of the day devoted to periods of meditation, prayer, and contemplation. While lectio ‘puts whole food in the mouth,’ meditation ‘chews it and breaks it up,’ prayer ‘extracts its flavor,’ and finally contemplation ‘is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshens.’”
Perhaps our modern reading challenge lies in learning when lectio is the best course, and when deeper meditation or contemplation is required. We must differentiate between the times when efficiency leads us to wisdom—and when efficiency becomes a distracting end in and of itself.
In John Steinbeck’s novel Winter of Our Discontent, businessman Ethan Hawley is haunted by the presence of the town drunkard—his childhood friend, Danny Taylor. Once like brothers, the two men’s paths slowly diverged over time. Now, Hawley watches his old friend succumb to squalor and self-abuse. He cannot forget his guilt.
It reminded me of old Scrooge: Dicken’s “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” who lived with squalor and illness on his doorstep, yet didn’t care. He couldn’t see over his insurmountable mountain of greed.
Our current lives are filled with Ethans and Dannys, Scrooges and Tiny Tims. Take Mike Remboulis: he and his half-brother grew up in the same Queens apartment, but their fortunes have changed drastically over the years. New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns shared their story last Sunday:
Even amid lighthearted banter and savory plates, reality almost always comes rushing back: Beyond those restaurant doors, his big brother is teetering on the edge, barely hanging on. Mr. Remboulis, 51, is an aerospace engineer with a graduate degree. His half-brother, Glenn Yuzzi, 59, is a carpenter with a high school diploma. They grew up in the same Queens apartment, but today they live on opposite sides of the economic divide. It is a twist of fortune that haunts Mr. Remboulis. “I don’t want him to scrape by,” he said. “I don’t want my brother to drown.”
It seems these unfair disparities become more prominent in the American mind around Christmastide. After all, it’s freezing cold outside in most of America. Most of us are huddled in coats and scarves, drinking coffee, thinking about presents, food, and parties. In the midst of this happy holiday reverie, we see a man slumped on the street corner, McDonalds cup sitting empty at his side. Even if one isn’t surrounded by the homeless, it’s almost impossible to live in a town or city without knowing at least one family whose fortunes have fallen on bad times. We grow up hearing so much about “Christmas spirit”—the spirit of giving that supposedly animates and transports us during the Christmas season. We read The Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, frown disapprovingly at the money-grubbing fiends.
Steinbeck set the advent of his novel on Good Friday. There’s death in the air. Over Friday and Saturday, change stirs in Ethan Hawley. But it isn’t change of a good kind. His money lust is awakening. From Saturday evening to Sunday morning, the morning of resurrection, Hawley begins to see himself as a snake that has just shed its skin. He’s transformed.
It reminded me of old Scrooge: he awakens on Christmas morning after a haunted nighttime vigil with ghosts. He is also transformed—but by losing his old self, completely rebirthed into newness: “I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby.” Scrooge scatters his money like dust to the wind, overflowing with generosity and joy. To Tiny Tim, “he was a second father.”
Who will we be this Christmas? I scurry down cold city streets and see the pleading eyes, listen to stories of families “getting by.” Part of me wants to bark out like Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
But that’s what the Christmas story is about: the One who had everything became nothing, to save the lost brother. He bore poverty, sorrow, and shame in the winter of our discontent. And He promised us that, like Scrooge, we could be “born again.” He wouldn’t let us drown.
He truly was “better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more.”
A Pew Research Center report released last Wednesday revealed that, counter to popular sentiment, the public library is neither outdated nor ignored. In fact, according to an Atlantic article posted Friday, their approval rating is higher than apple pie and baseball: “That’s right. Public libraries not only rank more highly in the American psyche than Congress, journalists, and President Obama, but they also trump baseball and apple pie. Public libraries are more beloved than apple pie.”
A couple disclaimers must be introduced here: first, of the 91 percent who told Pew they had never had “a negative experience using a public library,” there are probably a few who’ve only been to the library once or twice in their lives. Additionally, some participants may view libraries in a withdrawn but pleasant light, as a nice place for old people or schoolchildren—but not for personal use.
But these provisos do not discount the overall positive picture drawn by Pew: they reported that the majority of Americans have either visited a public library or used a public library website in the past twelve months. Though the proportion is lower this year than last (54 percent versus 59 percent in 2012), that’s still a significant number—more significant than many of us would guess. Only 32 percent of participants said local library closure would not affect them and their families personally, whereas 90 percent said it would have an impact on the community—63 percent called it a “major” impact.
Perhaps we wrote the book obituary a bit too soon. The closure of Borders gave us a scare, and Barnes & Noble still seems to be salvaging itself in the wake of the Nook failure. But independent bookstores, despite the doomsday predictions, are doing quite well. The Washington Post reported Sunday on the opening of a new indie bookstore Maryland, where owners Marlene and Tom England “are defying the future,” according to writer Michael Rosenwald. The Englands credit the continuing popularity of print books with America’s “vintage” craze: “We think there’s a desire by many to go back to a very simple time,” Tom England told Rosenwald. “Kids are starting to play Risk again. People want to touch things. They want to be a little low-tech.”
This doesn’t mean Americans are throwing out their tablets: rather, they’ve become what customer Ryan Young calls “hybrid readers.” Americans use both print and digital editions, swapping iPads for hardbacks in a random but seemingly contented fashion. People continue to frequent libraries, despite their lack of technological features, because some still like the quiet, the books, and librarian assistance.
Could it be possible to live with the best of both worlds? Young thinks so: “There has to be a value in both,” she told the Post. “There are books on my bookshelves that are like my friends. You can go back to them over and over again.” It may be an idealistic hope, but perhaps books and e-readers, libraries and Amazon can coexist in peace and harmony. So far, so good.