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P.S. Positivity: On Literature

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Illustration by Joao Fazenda

Illustration by Joao Fazenda

Illustration by Joao Fazenda

By Tara Monjazeb, Opinions Editor

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“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life; they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during the terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Humanity, virtually, owes everything to the book. Ancient philosophers and intellectuals recorded thoughts and morals that would form the building blocks for current social, legislative, and economic ethics. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the late 15th century enabled ordinary people to share and absorb the power of the written word. Literacy rates skyrocketed, and information and enlightenment was no longer limited to those within earshot. Schools of thought became vibrant and abundant, philosophies continuously branching and creating an incredible diversity of thinking across the earth and its inhabitants.

An estimated 130 million books have been published since then, and about a million more are published each year in the US alone. According to The Book of Life, a heavy reader will read, at best, up to 6,000 books in a lifetime. Even so, there is a subconscious fear that, surprisingly, there is not time for one to read 130 million books (and counting) in a lifetime. So, who will read the books that are left unread? Who will listen to those whose thoughts are left decaying on dusty bookshelves in the corner of abandoned libraries?

According to the National Endowment of the Arts, the percentage of Americans who have read any piece of literature (either in print or online)novels, short stories, plays, poemsin the past year decreased from 56.9% in 1982 to 43.1% in 2014.  It was also reported that, in 2014, nearly 25% of American adults had not picked up a book in the past year. This number has tripled since 1978, when that percentage was only 8%.

Libraries seem to be hit the hardest.  In the UK, public library usage has decreased more than 20% since 2005. In the US, the trends are similar. In 2013, 44% of Americans said they had visited a library in the past year, compared to 53% in 2010. The possible reasons for these trends are endless, but the closest associated trend was the decrease in funding and revenue. Government budget cuts for library funding as well as a decline in attendance throughout the past decade has forced thousands of libraries to close, leaving many booksas well as their readerswithout a home. In Douglas County, Oregon, the month of March saw the closure of ten libraries in the rural district, the last remaining branch expected to close in early May. These declines are also particularly evident in schools.  

A 2016 UK survey conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) suggests teachers are concerned about the future of school libraries. Almost all of the 485 participants, all of whom were members of school faculty, said their school still had a library. However, one third of participants said their library had suffered at least a 40% cut in funding since 2010, and 21% said their budget is insufficient to encourage pupils to read for pleasure. A Massachusetts School Library Association study conducted in 19 US states and Ontario, Canada between 1999 and 2007 proves a significant link between a strong school library program and student achievement. Staff are suffering as well. Despite over 60 studies that prove the link between well-staffed librarians and student test scores, librarian growth is estimated to increase by less than two percent by 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2011, 56% of schools in Pennsylvania did not have a single serving librarian. California ranks last in the nation in librarian-to-pupil ratio, leaving one librarian for every 5,124 students. The amount of library staff is expected to decrease in 2017 due to library budget cuts and closures.

Libraries are not only used for books, however. Many low-income families use Internet services and attend classes there, as well as check out books for adults and children alike. For those who are unable to access a stable and abundant education, the library is a safe haven. Even for those more fortunate, the library acts as a place to study or unwind (and really, who doesn’t like free books?).

When discussing the evident decrease in reading, one question consistently appears: is technology to blame? It’s a controversial topic. We read every day: news headlines, tweets, celebrity gossip articles. So, what is the difference? A number of studies have shown that literatureparticularly fictionseems to boost the quality of empathy in its readers. Literature provides one with the incredible privilege to access the mind of another, whether it be the mind of a character or the author. Because of this, our national decline in literature could be the reason we’re becoming a less empathetic nation overall. Reading was also proven to enhance relationships through the effects of empathy. Over time, readers were less likely to experience divorce and more likely to be active in their communities. It’s proven to reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia, reduce aggression in children and adults, and increase overall cognitive benefits.  Research from the University of Sussex proves that reading for as little as six minutes a day reduces stress by 68%, thus providing both short-term and long-term benefits.

Though there are many technical aspects to the benefits of literature, there is a magic and enlightenment in reading that cannot be proven by extensive research. Literature corrects our inarticulacy. It provides the simplicity that we crave when thinking about concepts that may be too abstract to identify properly. So often are we at a loss for words, that our reactions to things of beauty or chaos are abated in fear of direct confrontation with the elusive feelings that churn repeatedly so deep within us. Writers aim to make us visualize the common core of human existence, to empathize with those who are so often dismissed and misunderstood. When one comes across a book that fits the oddly shaped crevice left open by these inarticulate ideas, there is a remarkable clarity that leads to a more lucid account of our own experiences. It is both strange and wonderful.

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The School Newspaper of Flint Hill School
P.S. Positivity: On Literature