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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Cost of Reading, or Be Like John Bardeen

On Saturday a woman came into the bookshop with her husband and two children. She looked at a first edition hard cover of Jeffrey Archer and declared the price of $10.80 to be too expensive. She returned the book to the shelf, looked down another aisle, then said a curt "Thank you" and led her family out the door. Her husband proceeded to unload his golf clubs from the back of their van and head into the Golf and Pub, while she drove off with the children to visit the nearby amusement and water park where she will have no qualms about charging $200 or so to her VISA.

We recall an episode of The Simpsons in which Marge laments she never had the opportunity to apply the things taught in calculus class to her everyday life situations. The joke, of course, is that unless you are an engineer building the space shuttle, calculus will never apply to your everyday life situations. For many, calculus is studied in order to graduate, but never really learned, and then promptly forgotten. As our society becomes more visual, and more focused on the end user, learning is more often done by trial and error. See how a child learns to operate the remote control and the computer. Or how quickly he learns and masters a video game. Is it any wonder children study without learning and then forget how to read and write as well as do arithmetic?

The Golf and Pub is down the street from our store, and we watch people lug their clubs in all day long, far more in number than those who come into the bookshop. Americans have become brainwashed into equating the spending of money with being entertained. We wonder why other countries are performing better in academics. In a culture where the emphasis is on sports and celebrity, few children say "When I grow up, I want to be just like John Bardeen." They want to be like Tiger Woods or Paris Hilton. Why doesn't Random House turn to Tiger Woods to promote reading? Just as he raves about driving a Fusion, or shaving with a Tahoe, he can enthuse about the excitement, drama, and mystery of a Random House novel, or how he learned all about his idol Sam Snead by reading a Random House biography.

How will golf change the world? In 500 years, who will remember Paris Hilton? Few enter the bookshop while many enter the Golf and Pub; yet golf is the elite activity, requiring the expense of equipment as well as the precise maintenance of large amounts of land in an unnatural state. Only voting is more emblematic of democracy than reading. The Church used to put people to death for publishing the Bible in the vernacular, because they knew the consequences. Reading the Bible changed the world. Reading the Ninety-five Theses changed the world. The lasting value of books is so great as to make their cost negligible.

A man entered the shop today. "How much," he said as he strode by at a brisk pace, "do you want for..." and he quickly returned to place upon the counter a Stephen King book he had pulled from the shelf. $10.80. He already had his notes in hand, and without hesitation he peeled off two and handed them to me. My hope for mankind lingers on.

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