Trading 'screen time' for the printed page

ANYONE WHO COUNTS reading as one of life's great pleasures and books as one of life's great treasures will cheer, if only silently, for several book-affirming activities dotting the country these days.

In New York, a committee of librarians, educators, and bookstore owners is trying to find a book that all residents can read at the same time. The purpose? To unite New Yorkers in a common literary experience and to spark discussion. The experiment follows a successful venture in Chicago last year, called "One Book, One Chicago." Mayor Richard Daley asked locals to read Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The idea of turning cities into giant book clubs is gaining appeal. This spring, residents of Los Angeles will read "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury's chilling sci-fi classic. Seattle, where it all began in 1998 with a program called "If All Seattle Read the Same Book," has chosen Molly Gloss's "Wild Life," set in the Pacific Northwest.

In another show of support for the printed word, the National Education Association has designated this Friday, March 1, as the fifth annual Read Across America Day. The literary extravaganza will feature readings by celebrities and politicians. The Los Angeles Dodgers even plan to turn their Vero Beach, Fla., training camp into a reading circle.

But reading takes time. In a busy world, something's gotta give. Television, maybe?

As if on cue, Friday marks the beginning of a month-long effort in suburban Needham, Mass., to get residents to pull the plug on electronic entertainment and "plug into" reading and physical activities.

"I know in my own house there's a lot of 'screen time,' " says John Mattleman, director of the Needham Youth Commission, a sponsor of "Needham Unplugged." Similar campaigns elsewhere usually focus only on turning off television. But Mr. Mattleman, the father of two, likes the idea of including other "electronic distractions," such as computers and hand-held video games.

The town's campaign is well timed. A study in the February issue of Scientific American reports that TV viewing can be as addictive as drinking, drugs, and gambling. Authors of the report calculate that by the age of 75, a viewer with a three-hour-a-day TV habit will have spent a whopping nine years glued to the tube.

No wonder one critic calls television an "electronic drug." And no wonder all these groups are trying valiantly to persuade Americans to disconnect electronic "distractions," even briefly, and reconnect with the printed page.

There is something particularly touching about the citywide "read-ins" and the idealism, the yearning for community, that drives them. As cities search for a book to satisfy diverse tastes, the one-title-fits-all formula may be too rigid and dictatorial. New York's committee is debating between "Native Speaker," by Chang-rae Lee, and "The Color of Water," by James McBride. Why not choose both titles, or even three or four?

In a high-tech age, the low-tech book is proving daily that it can still hold its own. One of the best portrayals of its importance comes in the book Los Angeles has chosen, "Fahrenheit 451." In Bradbury's soulless futuristic society, reading books is illegal (they are burned), and watching television from dawn to dark is encouraged.

What better reminder of the pleasures of the printed page, the comforting smell of old bindings in libraries, and the tantalizing possibilities lining every bookstore shelf?

So many titles. So little time.

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