“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” — Ray Bradbury
This past winter three movies have risen to the top of what has become, lately, a mediocre industry: “The Hobbit,” “Les Miserables,” and “The Great Gatsby.” While I admire a good adaptation, I lament the fact that once again the kids can opt for a video rather than reading the book. We may be raising a generation of nearly illiterate people, as they forgo reading and writing (have you received a written note from a teenager lately? LOL) because our culture has made it unnecessary to do it. I expect, in the future, no one will be able to read and comprehend anything more complicated than “Microwave on high for three minutes.”
Mom always told me that I learned to read before I started school. It was probably in 1943 or 1944 and I was sitting on her lap. She had read to me from day one, and continued to read to me and my siblings until I was too engrossed in my own reading to listen. I learned “How the Bear Got His Short Tail” and all about “Paul Revere’s Ride” as I sat nestled up under her left arm, looking at the pictures and the strange black marks that whispered to her all the magical ideas she was imparting to me.
As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in the rural Northwest during WWII. While we were not exactly “backwoodsy,” the area was definitely provincial. Farmers, loggers, and a few miners were the backbone and economic stability of the area. It was before TV. Movies were a special occasion and the radio was for music and news, although we tuned in on Saturday mornings for “Let’s Pretend” and “Sky King.” My most enduring mental image of both my young parents is each sitting deeply involved in a book, nearly oblivious to the world around them.
Learning to read was my ticket to ride beyond the adult post-war confusion and later even the teenage angst. I read the backs of cereal boxes (in those days designed to be enjoyed by kids) and I read “Superman” and “Tales from the Crypt” in living color comic books. I learned about Huey, Dewey and Louie in a monthly subscription through the mail. I read on the toilet and in bed under the covers. I devoured Rudyard Kipling and the “Tales of the Arabian Nights” (good hard covers, those, gifts from my godfather who had read those very same books as a child) never suspecting I might be traveling toward “good” literature.
I learned about jungles and planets and other people in the encyclopedias my dad just couldn’t resist buying. I read all of Nancy Drew in the small public library then the librarian directed me to “Freckles” and “A Girl of the Limberlost.” I cried when Beth died in “Little Women.” I learned that the movie is seldom as good as the book when I saw “Little Women” on screen with Margaret O’Brien as the tragic Beth, and June Allyson as tomboy Jo. Movies these days are better adapted, but still no comparison to using one’s own imagination.
I graduated to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” nearly scandalizing my seventh-grade English teacher, then read “Gone With the Wind” and turned all the eighth-grade girls on to Rhett Butler although some insisted that Ashley Wilkes was the real hero. The movie had not been re-released yet, so we were free to interpret without the image of Clark Gable coloring our imaginations.
My folks never censored my reading, except once when I was about 13. My dad saw me with a paperback (heaven forbid! remember this was about 1952) of “The Journeyman” by Erskine Caldwell, and took it away telling me I could read it sometime later. I have not read it yet although others of his ... “Tobacco Road,” “God’s Little Acre” ... have proven good studies and good reads. Digression alert: I was clearing some of our books and found a paperback copy of “The Amboy Dukes” by Irving Shulman (No! not about the 1960s Ted Nugent band). I’m sure some of you passed that one around during your teen years, and may even have had it confiscated by a well-meaning teacher. Gone are the days ...
In the past nearly everyone learned to read, and like learning to breathe, never thought about it again. I have raised a family, earned two degrees, taught school, traveled internationally, read to my grandchildren, published a poem or two, and watched my mother die. All of these experiences were enabled or eased because I learned to read. I’m afraid that generations to come will not have that option because we are allowing them to learn the process but skip the experience.
A movie, no matter how well adapted from a book can only hit the high spots, but a in a good novel, like in life, much is learned in the valleys. After all, who knew Hobbits has hairy feet before they read the prologue to the book?
Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.