The Peripatetic Reviewer
BY EDWARD WEEKS
WHEN he was in his eighty-seventh year, M. A. DeWolfe Howe, the biographer, was admitted to the circle of Talking Books, that national library of long-playing records which is such a boon to those whose eyes are worn out. Mark, who is one of the best-read men in Boston, was surprised, as most people are, by the delight of taking in books through the ear; he applied for some of his favorite Dickens and for other titles which he had missed in his active days. “If this thing goes on for another five years,” he remarked to me with a smile, “I’ll begin to feel well-read!" It has already gone on for ten.
Is there any inner resource as precious to the eager, as comforting to the old, as reading? When I think of irrepressible John Stuart Mill reading all the major classics in Greek at the age of eight; of Lincoln studying by the light of the open fire; of Milton lamenting the loss of his sight “ere half my days, in this dark world and wide"; of Dr. Johnson, so myopic that he had to devour his books pressed half an inch from his big nose; of John Keats, knowing he had such a short span left, yet treasuring every line under the mulberry tree that still stands on Hampstead Heath; of the Polish seaman, Joseph Conrad, reading English in his bunk so that eventually he could write it as his own; of Theodore Roosevelt, while in the White House, pelting through his new books before breakfast and after midnight, I am truly amazed that there should be so many million Americans who have been taught to read, who have access to all this treasure — and who never open a book.
The Russians are more book hungry than we, and so are the Germans; the French have managed to sell their new books at a much cheaper price; the British are prompted by more diverse tastes, they do their own picking without the help of book clubs, and they do not kowtow to any list of best sellers.
There are several reasons for the nonreading of Americans, and the most elemental is the repugnance which is developed in our schools by the required reading of ill-chosen titles. In this mechanically minded nation of ours, there is a vast majority to whom books are unnecessary and a bore, and a sizable minority who have never learned the techniques of reading. For them, reading is a long literal plod, word by word, line by line. They are unable to skip and choose, and they make such a chore of a book that it takes them four to six months to finish one. There are the hard-driven professionals, the lawyers and doctors, the physicists and engineers, who have all they can do to keep up with their technical journals. There are the students and teachers working conscientiously for their chosen subject, correcting papers or writing them at night with only a rare splurge for “light reading.” Finally, there are those two modern competitors of the printed word, both of them huge time consumers: television and the long-playing record. Television is like a love affair, and unless the viewer be firmminded, he can lapse into an infatuation that can go on for hours. The infatuation is effortless and indiscriminate, and while it lasts there is no time for books. The long-playing record fills an aesthetic need for the younger generation, and many of them would rather spend their money for a library of records, and what is left for paperbacks, than bother about the more expensive books in hard covers.
All of this nonreading has had an unfortunate effect on American publishing and on American writing. It is harder to get a first book published today than it was in 1945. The author’s royalties from a first novel published in 1959 would not average out as high as $3000, and from a first book of verse the author would average less than $1500. This is driving young writers into teaching for their self-support or to writing for television or the films, where the pay is better; and to the publisher it means that he can afford to publish fewer and fewer new writers each year. It seems to me paradoxical that this paucity should exist in what is supposed to be the best-educated and wealthiest nation on earth.
READING TO KNOW
As a follow-up to his first report,The American High School Today, JAMES B. CONANT has just published a memorandum to school boards with specific RECOMMENDATIONS FOR EDUCATION IN THE JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL YEARS (Educational Testing Service, Princeton, New Jersey, 50 cents). He and his staff visited 237 schools in twenty-three states during the school year 1959—1960, and his findings and recommendations are charged with common sense for the school committeemen, the school administrators — and the parents. There is a wide range here of sage advice, as, lor instance, when he says that the top administrative officer in a school system should not have tenure meaning, of course, that he must be on his mettle and his value constantly redefined. Or again, at the other end of the spectrum, when he says flatly that “Interscholastic athletics and marching bands are to be condemned in junior high schools: there is no sound educational reason for them and too often they serve merely as public entertainment.”
But his most urgent recommendation is that we recognize the deterioration that has taken place in reading the country over. “The ability to read,” says Dr. Conant, “is imperative in secondary school. I have been in schools in which practically no one in the ninth grade was reading as low as grade 6, and I have been in schools in which from 35 to 50 percent of the ninth graders were reading at the sixth-grade level or below . . . in every school there is a certain fraction of pupils who read well below their grade level. These pupils need special books and teachers. To my mind, to mix in an English class boys and girls reading three years below grade level with those reading three years above grade level is to do everyone concerned an injustice.” He places the blame for this unhealthy state of affairs where it belongs, on “the community and the educational expectations of the parents.”Many communities, he tells us, must recognize the seriousness of the reading problem and attempt to upgrade their reading program, and he adds, hopefully, that he has been impressed by the efforts which are now being made in certain of our larger cities.
It is asking a good deal of an adolescent that he should attach more importance to the printed word than his parents do, yet this is precisely what the children of our immigrants have done in cases beyond number. But they need help. “Ideally,” says Dr. Conant, “all English teachers at the secondary level should be prepared to teach reading skills; unfortunately, they are not.” We shall have to provide better help there, and in the more intelligent use of the school library as well. In the schools I attended, the day’s schedule was so full that we literally had no time to read in the school library, and a shabby, dusty place it was. Now, with our records of the best of the modern poets and with other audio-visual aids, it should be one of the most exciting and desirable spots, and, as Dr. Conant says, “Principals, teachers, and librarians should work at incorporating the use of the library into regular class activities.”
But school pressure cannot have lasting effect if it is met with indifference at home. A Gallup Poll has shown that most Americans questioned could not recall reading any kind of book in the year past. If we are to handle the hard decisions of the coming decade, we must have an electorate who will read more and vote not with emotion but with understanding. Only so shall we move out of our present softheadedness.
“THINGS ARE IN THE SADDLE”
One of the most effective ads of this year shows two identical Volkswagens, one marked 1959, the other 1960, with the caption “Our Models Don’t Change.” This is a challenge to Detroit’s belief in giantism (bigger and gaudier cars for the new money) and its insistence on expensive restyling annually, a challenge made to order for VANCE PACKARD. In his new book, THE WASTE MAKERS (David McKay, $4.50), Mr. Packard takes a very skeptical look at the glib certitudes of our stimulated economy; he resists the notion that if people are going to consume more, they must waste more; he favors durability over planned obsolescence; and he thinks that the “death-dating” of our products is wasteful. He quotes an engineer of radio equipment who states that his instrument was planned “to last not more than three years,” and another who remarks, “It is wasteful to make any component more durable than the weakest link, and ideally a product should fall apart all at once.” This is evidence of an unhealthy and extravagant system.
A shrewd and lively compiler, Mr. Packard hits hard at the obsolescence of cars, of electrical appliances (his quotation here of General George Doriot’s remarks is high-voltage), and of vulnerable furniture. He has surprisingly less to say about the absurd styling of women’s clothes and the shoddy waste in the building of our string towns. He is rightly concerned about the decline in thrift but does not rub in the truth that, in a society of quick earners such as ours, people with new money spend for the sake of spending. On page 170 he quotes but does not stress the revealing remark of an extravagant housewife, apropos of her parents’ habit of saving for a rainy day: “I feel I may not live for a rainy day.” That speaks for many, and advertising, one of Mr. Packard’s scapegoats, is hardly to be blamed for that recklessness.
In The Hidden Persuaders and The Status Seekers, Mr. Packard caught the public’s ear with his bright labels and provocative analyses of American gullibility. More power to him if he can help to make us conserve.
AMERICA IN THE SUN
“The scientific man,” so wrote a famous scientist, “is always on the road, never at the journey’s end,” and these words are a fitting description of EDWIN WAY TEALE. An authority on birds and insects, Mr. Teale, in mid-career, set out to survey the natural history of this country as it is found today in the four American seasons. Moving and writing with the glorious, unspecialized freedom of the old-time naturalist, he produced his first book, North with the Spring, on the North-South axis as he followed the birds and the burgeoning from the Florida Keys to upper Canada. In Autumn Across America he traveled from East to West, from Long Island Sound to the last lingering touch of autumn on the Western slope. In each itinerary he plans to visit those places which have been identified with some natural phenomenon and those persons famous for their knowledge of wild bees, wild roses, or wild cats; thus, his panorama, as it unfolds, becomes a blend of past and present, a salty chronicle of encounter and observation in which his wife, Nellie, plays no small part.
In JOURNEY INTO SUMMER (Dodd, Mead, $5.95), the third of the series, Mr. Teale’s exposition reaches full, sunny fruition. Throughout this journey of 19,000 miles he moves in sweeping zigzags, beginning with the sunrise north of Franconia Notch; then traipsing down the wild Sunday River on the longest day of the year; moving on to Vermont, where he introduces us to Cyrus Pringle, the pioneer collector of American ferns; and thence on the Long Trail to Mount Mansfield, where he and Nellie listen to the famous thrush chorus. At Niagara he consorts with a Canadian, Roy W. Sheppard, an authority on the Niagara region: they compare notes about the waterfowl which are carried over the falls, and why such a large number should perish in their flights into the gorge; they discuss what has happened to Niagara during its first thirty-five thousand years and agree that it is now only a little more than half as high as it once was.
He and Nellie reach Kelly’s Island in Sandusky Bay at the height of the May fly spectacle, and their description of the fireflies on the Kankakee River is surely the most beautiful I have ever read. On a Wisconsin lake shore Mr. Teale spent the better part of two days observing the Kentucky feud between a pair of redheaded woodpeckers who had bored twin holes in a dying oak and were trying to evict a household of starlings from the apartment upstairs; then the Teales went on to Bailey Harbor, where a group of local citizens have preserved those famous orchid bogs known as the Ridges Sanctuary.
Now camping, now staying in motels or the village inn, they have a taste for everything local. They feast on wild rice pancakes, turtle steak, rhubarb and strawberry pie, and crayfish bisque. And as they walk or drive through this protracted summer, the air is always redolent of the early summer perfume of the drying grass. Reading Mr. Teale, I find myself wishing I could communicate to other Americans how much this one man’s observation arouses and delectifies our appreciation of this country. Time, the merciless changer, destroys so rapidly; this is our heritage, and there is so little time to know.
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