Every person their book

a man sitting outside on a bench or wall looking down at a book that is open in his lap.

This is a message I sent out to a mailing list I’m on, responding to the Scholastic Reading Report about kids and family reading.

“Most alarmingly, kids in third and fourth grade are beginning to stop reading for fun. It’s called the ‘Decline by 9.'” A few people on the list discussed their own children who didn’t like the books they were given to read in school.

I’ve thought about this a lot as someone in the library world where YA books that cover “issues” (for lack of a better word, but basically struggle and conflict and/or difficult topics) are often the ones winning book awards or getting selected for the statewide “$STATE_NAME Reads” programs. Our local Humanities Council, which I love and which I used to be on the board of, has consistently picked books in this loose topic area for the past half-decade. They’re good books, but they’re also fraught during a time when the world around us has also been a bit fraught.

These books are very good and worth reading! But they’re also just part of what’s available in the world of reading. Reading can be for relaxing and escapism just as it can be for getting informed and staying on top of issues. And yet, as the stories people have told on the mailing list, a lot of times you get more of the serious-type books, the ones with a message or a statement, as required reading in schools. In my day I can remember absolutely hating The Scarlet Letter, Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales. I did like “The Lottery,” but that was an exception, probably because it was so strange. All of these books are solid reads, but if they are what you think reading IS, I can imagine feeling “Wow this is not for me.” My family was a big “go to the library” family and I was encouraged to read what I was interested in–comics, mysteries, weird “how does it work?” titles–and have stayed a reader into my adulthood, print and ebook titles, a lot of scifi and mysteries along with some “issue” books and weird “how does it work” books to round things out.

There’s long been a bias in (some of) academia and (some of) librarianship that the best books are the ones that are non-genre and that have, for lack of a better word, serious topics. Not beach reads, etc. This is, mercifully, fading. A friend of mine just had a talk with my (small rural) library director about how the new fiction book shelf was nearly entirely books about war zones, child abuse, failed marriages and relationships, terrible childhoods, and Nazis. Like, what message is that sending about the world of reading? And there’s a push in some online circles that in order to be aware of the world around us, people SHOULD read these books. And I think there’s a tension there. I’m someone who had a not-great childhood in some ways and I don’t want to read about bad childhoods, for the most part, as an example. I can imagine people who had to confront some of these issues in real life might not want to also have to read about them, or maybe they might? Sometimes representation, seeing yourself in literature, is a powerful way to feel supported. ALA’s slogan used to be (maybe still is) “The best books for the most people at the least cost.” And the question remains “Best for whom?”

It’s important, as library workers and as authors, publishers, and book promoters that we’re mindful of the subtext of the messages behind what gets promoted and what gets de-emphasized. I’m a firm believer in Ranganathan’s laws of library science, the first three of which are

Books are for use.
Every person their book.
Every book its reader.

We need to make sure that’s the message we’re giving to young people the same way we are for adults.

4 thoughts on “Every person their book

  1. I’ve been thinking about the notion and the noun “person” as the nexus for comnmunity public library activities. Notion: self-determination, eudamonia, flow, conversation, imagination, decision, event. Noun: not patron, customer, member, user.

    Rephrasing Douglas Zweizig: “[Librarians] have looked at the user in the life of the library rather than the library in the life of the [person].” “User”, of course, sneaks the institution back in. As do the usual alternatives.

    Thanks for rephrasing Ranganathan without using the noun “information.” which sneaks in a whole new class of institution.

  2. This is a very interesting point I didn’t think about Jessamyn. No wonder kids duck out of books at that age.

    One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in my lifetime is that any official award ceremony in the arts focuses and rewards these “tough topics.” A couple of books on topic X are interesting, but when you see the same themes over and over again it becomes tiresome and exhausting. It’s kind of like having a sitcom where every episode is a “very special episode.”

    Maybe there needs to be awards for “light reads” or something like that? It’s hard to imagine how something like that could work to be honest. “Tough topics” are held in such esteem by people, that indicating that you don’t care for them could make you a social pariah. Maybe it needs to be framed as self aware in some way … maybe a “Guilty Pleasures Award” perhaps?

  3. Carole, I would hesitate to call the books on lighter topics “guilty pleasures”. That opens up even more of an opportunity for shaming a person because of what they’re reading, especially kids. Adults tend to get to the point in their reading where they look at the judgements of others and tell them to go stuff themselves. Kids being told that a book is a guilty pleasure are basically being told that it’s a bad book to enjoy, but we’ll let you do it just this once, just make sure you read the “real” books because they’re the books that we won’t judge you for enjoying.

  4. I guess I was recommending “Guilty Pleasures” as an adult thing, and while it’s likely problematic for any audience, that’s a good point that it would probably be the worst with kids involved.

    I was thinking we need an award that says, “yes, tough topics matter, but this is also fun to read.” “Guilty Pleasures” speaks to that apologetic duality, but it carries it’s own baggage as well unfortunately.

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