We the Readers
Nobody has a gun to your head as you read this, so I figure you belong to that hardy breed of thinkers and doers—those shunners of idleness and keepers of the flame of civilization—who read for pleasure. It is turning into an exclusive club. In 2002, just 56.6 percent of all American adults read a book outside of work or school, according to a National Endowment for the Arts survey. That was down from 60.9 percent 10 years earlier. The percentage who read literature (loosely defined as any novel, even a trashy one, or any short story, poem, or play) dropped from 56.9 in 1982, to 54.0 in 1992, to 46.7 percent in 2002. So thanks for being here.
As a reader, you know what a fine complement a book can be to a brain. This realization seems to have escaped my adolescent children, one of whom has departed for camp with two flimsy volumes of required school reading—more like pamphlets than books, if you ask me—and turned down Bill Bryson’s hilarious A Walk in the Woods with a huffy “Why would I ever read a book I didn’t have to read?” The other one has settled into a summer routine of sleep, TV, Dunkin’ Donuts, TV, computer, sleep, Dunkin’ Donuts, computer. (If he comes across this column, he is to dig out those two Kurt Vonneguts I gave him right now.) But for you, dear reader, as a reward for your loyal membership in the I Have More Than Two Functioning Neurons And I’m Not Afraid To Use Them Club, we have something special in store.
“Your Brain on Books” began life as a “summer reading” package. We envisioned a few light articles in a literary vein—book recommendations and such. Then Maryanne Wolf, Tufts’ renowned reading specialist, lent us part of Proust and the Squid, her forthcoming book on the development of the lexical brain, and we acquired depth. Three members of Tufts’ literary pantheon—Gregory Maguire, Jonathan Wilson, and Virginia Jackson—signed on as essayists, and we acquired heft. Through serendipity, a rising star, Grace Talusan, turned in a strangely delightful short story about books and death. Suddenly our idea of presenting soft, mindless beach reading had gone all to hell. We would have to make do with substance—and substance, we know, is not everybody’s cup of tea.
But we thought you might like it. Wherever you go this summer—to the beach, the mountains, the desert—I hope you’ll take us along. And, yes, you can roll us up if you want.