Believe it or not, there used to be a time when people who read weren’t considered “snobs,” but ordinary folk. That’s what my mother told me, even as she promised $5 if I finished both Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn by summer’s end. “Reading’s not nerdy,” she said. “It’s normal.”
That’s a roundabout admission of just how addicted I was as a child to television and video games. She offered the same reward to my younger brother, who was addicted to tetherball. Thank God I turned off the television. Today, I stand guilty of editing Salt Lake City’s most renegade newspaper, while my brother is a published author teaching creative writing at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. You decide who came out ahead.
Mom’s words hit me clean on the head during the 75th anniversary celebration of Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore last Saturday. It was a warm, surprisingly low-key event full of bookworms, authors and scholars praising the everlasting greatness of the independent businesses lucky enough to hawk the printed word, be it a collector’s first edition or a budget paperback. Dropping my ninth olive off the buffet table and onto the floor, it hit me that mom never paid me that $5. But of course it took me that long to remember. Because for years since, I’ve been hooked on reading, or least buying way too many books for my own good, selling them, then turning around to buy more. Thankfully, a lot of people agree that’s normal. Thankfully, Sam Weller’s is still in business.
People will bore you with alarmist facts about how we don’t read as much as we should, or about how forms of entertainment requiring so little from the brain have atrophied or outright crippled the imagination of future generations. Then there are people who actually do something about it, like volunteer in literacy programs. Or like Mayor Rocky Anderson, who has appointed a committee to choose and promote a “One Book, One City” program for Salt Lake City.
The program is hardly news in many cities, especially Seattle, which first inaugurated the idea years ago as “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book.” Most of us already know what it’s like to live in a community where lots of people read the same book, be it the Bible or Book of Mormon. Speaking personally, there’s something slightly unsettling about one community moving in lockstep around the exact same text. Me? I’ll read Moby Dick, Dante, King Lear or Martin Amis’ Money for the 17th time on my own. Others like to read in groups, and more power to them.
Mayor Anderson’s book club is good news for anyone who wondered why Oprah Winfrey gave Steinbeck’s East of Eden the time of day, or why it took her so long to select Anna Karenina. No offense to Oprah, but the mayor’s committee has a better selection of books. Plus, reading shouldn’t be the sole domain of women. We talk all the time about the growing income gap between the rich and the middle class. What about the growing intellectual gap between men who watch sports and women who read? If more men such as Rocky stood up for reading, we’d be much less reliant on people like my mother, who can keep her measly $5 anyway.