Who couldn’t use an escape from the real world, especially now as insanity in the public sphere runs amok. What we need is a good book to take us away, like a long soak in Calgon, to different times, different lives, different everything.
Luckily for escapee-wannabees, PBS, that great American publicly funded broadcasting network (which even staunch conservatives like me have to admit is the best station on television), is airing an eight-part series exploring the wonders of reading. Maine Public, our local PBS affiliate, is in the third or fourth week of airing “The Great American Read.”
The series explores the 100 greatest books written by American and worldwide authors, as voted on by viewers. The books run the gamut. From Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” to C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” many of the titles are either stalwarts of the Western Canon or more modern classics.
I have to admit that most of what I read is news, not novels. While that keeps me up to date on what’s going on now, reading great books like the ones on this PBS list is probably time better spent than keeping up on the political he said/she said (literally in the Judge Kavanaugh case, right?). Reading great literature is simply time well spent, and it’s admirable PBS is devoting its attention to this topic.
So why is reading so great? For one, there’s no better way to become aware of how other people think than through reading novels exploring the human psyche. When you read, you understand you’re not alone. Everyone suffers from anxiety, loss of hope and love and other personal trauma. Young people and adults who are not well read think they’re somehow unique when they suffer from these negative feelings. When they read, they discover they’re not special at all and that every single person has suffered similar feelings at one time or another.
Reading also provides a great education. The Greek derivation of “college” is “Read together,” and that’s basically what college is: People reading books together and having their professor explain what it all means. My college library had a great Malcolm X quote etched into its granite exterior: “My alma mater was books, a good library. I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.” Seeing those words near the library entrance always provided inspiration for this weary student.
To be honest, reading is also a great chore. I wish I didn’t feel this way, but I do. I like to get out and do things, rather than read about others doing things. But reading is doing something, I tell myself. If I die without reading the great classics, will I have really lived?
Yes, I read a lot of the great books in high school and college, but now that I’m older I’m more aware that the great authors have a special ability to translate the most important aspects of life. The classics from the 1800s still speak today to the human condition, but each new generation has its own translators of the great truths.
I remember in the early 1980s when people believed the great authors had already come and gone and many thought the powerful visuals of TV and movies would replace the printed word. American authors stepped up their game, though. John Grisham, Tom Clancy, James Patterson, Toni Morrison, Stephen King and other prolific American authors have brought the printed page back to life.
So, who’s reading today? According to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 73 percent of American adults read a book in the previous 12 months. Women (77 percent) read more than men (68 percent). Whites (76 percent) read more than either blacks (69 percent) or Hispanics (58 percent). Younger adults read more than older adults. More educated adults read more than less educated adults. Wealthier adults read more than less wealthy adults. And urban dwellers read more than rural residents.
Despite e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle growing in quality and popularity, the Pew poll found people were sticking with printed books. A total of 65 percent of those who read a book in the past year read a printed book, while only 28 percent read an e-book.
How about you? How long has it been since you picked up a great novel? It’s been a while for me, but this PBS series is inspiring me to read the classics. My mother sent me Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and I bought the sequel “Go Set a Watchman,” so now that I’m done writing for today it’s time for me to start reading.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.