Conspiring to Distract You

Excerpt from A Librarian's Lament: Books Are a Hard Sale an essay by Thomas Washington from The Washington Post (1/21/07):

Typically, many people in my line of work no longer have the title of librarian. They are called media and information specialists, or sometimes librarian technologists. The buzzword in the trade is "information literacy," a misnomer, because what it is really about is mastering computer skills, not promoting a love of reading and books. These days, librarians measure the quality of returns in data-mining stints. We teach students how to maximize a database search, about successful retrieval rates. What usually gets lost in the scramble is a careful reading of the material.
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I recently spoke with a junior who was stressed about her decreasing ability to focus on anything for longer than two minutes or so. I tried to inspire her by talking about the importance of reading as a way to train the brain. I told her that a good reader develops the same powers of concentration that an athlete or a Buddhist would employ in sport or meditation. "A lot out there is conspiring to distract you," I said.

She rolled her eyes. "That's your opinion about books. It doesn't make it true." To her, the idea that reading might benefit the mind was, well, lame.

A library's neglected shelves reveal the demise of something important, especially for young readers starved for meaning -- for anything profound. Still, I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I'm turning the new-arrivals shelf into a main attraction in my school's library. Recently I stood Charles Dickens's "Bleak House" next to the DVD version produced by the BBC. Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson) graced both covers. A senior fingered the DVD for a minute, then turned it over to read the blurb. "The book is too long," she said. "Is the movie any better?"

"You're right. The book is long," I said. "But once you start this one, you won't be able to put it down, right from that first page about the London fog."

"I think I'll watch the DVD," the student said.

And in my library ledger, I'll register this as a sale.