One for the Books: Do Our Students Still Read Them?

October 17, 2017 - 4:25pm -- Jennifer Arin

    In his essay “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie writes, “I grew up kissing books and bread. In our house, whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall a chapati or a “slice,” which was our word for a triangle of buttered leavened bread, the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but also kissed .... Devout households in India often contained, and still contain, persons in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything. ... Bread and books: food for the body and food for the soul – what could be more worthy of our respect, and even love?” (Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, 1992).

    I’ve often cited, and recited, that excerpt for students, to emphasize that they should want to read their courses’ required texts. All faculty have been frustrated at times by students’ coming to class unprepared, with the assigned books unpurchased or, even if bought and brought, barely glanced at. Our hearts ache, not just because that lack of reading affects class discussion and students’ grades, but because these are books we choose carefully, lovingly, for their valuable content and, in turn, their ability to help students advance their knowledge and careers. With each new poll about how young people read less today, we nod and sigh, even as we keep wracking our minds for ways to engage students with the class readings.

    Quite the surprise, then, that on our campus, about 500 non-required books were sold on August 27 and 28, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., during a sale by the Friends of the Library bookstore. For half an hour, I sat beside Barbara Loomis, Professor Emerita of History, Vice President of the Friends of the Library organization, and current manager of the store, as she rang up one book after another for students she aptly referred to as “eager purchasers.”

    “There’s a buzz and excitement,” she explained, “when they find what they want.” Professor Loomis attributes this happy result to the faculty’s “great book donations over the summer.” Remarkably, even the grammar books I’d donated, their dry chapters sandwiched between dull covers and unlovely illustrations, got snatched up. It couldn’t have hurt that hardcovers were sold for two dollars, and paperbacks for just one. And while these books’ buyers may have been our more motivated students, or those who found books that resonated for them more than the books we sometimes assign, the sight was heartening.

   Witnessing our students accruing books wholly of their own volition: for anyone guiding our students’ academic growth, that’s food for the soul.