Some Words In Their Defense

THE head of the English department stood in the doorway to my classroom. ``You'll have to withdraw the Agee book,'' he said. ``There've been some complaints to the principal.''

``Who complained?'' I asked. No response.

``I'll have to think about it overnight,'' I said. ``If I have to answer now, I'd have to say, If the book goes, I go.''

Great. The first days of my first job. The James Agee novel, ``A Death in the Family,'' was a beautiful piece of writing. I'd assigned it to all my classes - among lots of other books. Students could have substituted a book of equal merit of their own choosing if they found it objectionable. Passages from the Agee book, especially its prologue, have been set to concert songs. The novel is about a boy's coping with the accidental death of his father. It contains a reference to a member of the clergy as a black-robed, mealy-mouthed so-and-so, which, as described, he was.

I wanted to make my case. I asked each class whether any student or a parent had complained. No response.

To check out my thinking, I called the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who had just awarded me my degree. ``The issue isn't just a book,'' I said. ``To withdraw it would be to withdraw the standards it represents for writing and sentiment.'' No argument from the dean.

The next morning the principal backed me up. Years later, I stopped by the school to chat with him about other matters. It had been the local monsignor who had called to complain, he volunteered.

The attack on reading - and on its kin, watching and listening to quality stuff in other media - is unrelenting. The resistance has many fronts. Content is only one front. The argument of too little time is another. Are people really too busy to read? The 24 hours of the day are no shorter than they have ever been.

In regard to newspapers, behind ``I don't have time to read,'' a subaudible voice can often be detected saying, ``I just don't want to hear about it.'' There is a willful disinclination to know about what's going on in the world.

Newspapers are trying to cut off that avenue of escape by ``layering'': The reader can skim through summaries of stories, offered in various ways, getting the gist of the matter in a five-minute read through the paper.

Actually, skimming is one of the natural gears of the human mind. Most editors go through five newspapers each morning. This probably takes none of us more than a half hour. In my case, using a metal ruler I tear out the few stories I might want to return to later. I also read two or three books a week - quickly, with energy. I approach reading with a high sense of expectation. I've trained myself to expect to find what I need to know about at that moment. Our books section receives a dolly-cart load of books every day that I like to forage through - again, looking for ideas. The young man who opens the packages feels the same excitement: ``Each book is the distillation of what someone's been thinking about for years,'' he said the other day.

People disinclined to read are probably disinclined to think.

I'm not setting writing above other forms of human distillation: music, dance, mathematics, architecture, which together form the bulwark of civilization. The issue again is standards.

Why design newspapers for people who don't want to read? Would you edit a Bible for the amoral? Develop a philosophy, a sociology, for people content to muddle?

Neither is an alternative to reading to be found in electronic information sources. These are adjuncts, not alternatives. Reading a screen is, after all, still reading.

This newspaper eagerly pursues every possible technological advance for producing and sharing information, in graphics, design, research, and communications. Technology lets us leverage out our other creative talents for more far-ranging reporting and enterprise projects.

The US Education and Labor Departments have just issued a report finding that half of American adults lack basic literacy skills. So why not vigilance in reading's defense?

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