Oct 14, 2008

Why you should stop, drop and read

by Natalie Lozano

“There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house,” said Guy Montag. “There must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

Montag is the fictional hero of Ray Bradbury’s most renown work, “Fahrenheit 451,” which is currently the topic of community discussion under the Big Read Lynchburg (BRL) program. Readers are gathering at places like Amazement Square, Lynchburg College, Barnes and Noble, the Whitehart and the Mezzanine for group discussions, film viewings and lectures.

My excitement about BRL affirmed my belief that I have an abnormal love for reading. Any doubt that I possessed was dispelled on the first day of classes when one professor asked us to give not only our names, but also the title of a book we had read over the summer. A catch for many of my summer-studying classmates was that textbooks did not count. Although a handful of students mentioned titles, a surprising majority could not. All of my classmates are intelligent and will be joining the work force within the next two years, so the lack of reading evidenced was disheartening. Simultaneously, the experience confirmed one belief and destroyed another: no longer can we assume that people enjoy reading.

According to “Reading at Risk,” the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) findings from a 2002 national survey, barely half of American adults (18 and over) spend time reading for pleasure.

Even scarier is the lack of reading on college campuses.

“Sixty-five percent of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week or not at all,” according to “Reading at Risk.” Our distractions do not just take the form of FaceBook, MySpace and unlimited text messages with friends, but textbooks also stand in between potential bookworms and actual books.

The problem begins before students enter college. Dickens, Shakespeare, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were not written for 14-to-18-year-old eyes, yet they are the primary authors encountered by high school students. Ultimately, if students do not want to read classic literature, like Hamlet and Great Expectations, they shouldn’t have to. The truth, whether or not educators want to face it, is that students who do not want to read classics are not going to read them. Quizzes and other means of testing a student are foiled by watching the movie, reading the SparksNotes or talking to the people who, like me, actually read (confession: I skimmed most of Great Expectations my freshmen year. I couldn’t stand it).

While testing doesn’t always work, outside motivators seem to work exceedingly well. In 1985, Pizza Hut started the BookIt! program to motivate children to read. Every October, teachers set the monthly goal for their students and for each month that the students achieve the goal, they earn a free personal pan pizza. I’m a BookIt! alumni and consider both my mind and my stomach to be better for the books I picked up in elementary school.

BRL is another reading program, geared toward a slightly older demographic. Given all the alternatives that adults, and especially parents, have, I think a reading initiative for grown-ups is perhaps the best solution to the problem of aliteracy, that is, knowing how to read, but choosing not to.

Lynchburg is one of 208 communities that received a 2008 Big Read grant from the NEA, which allows the sponsors, in this case Amazement Square, the Rightmire Children’s Museum and the Lynchburg Public Library, to distribute copies of the books along with supplemental materials to local participants.

Because of the plethora of electronic alternatives to reading, the Big Read campaign has incorporated YouTube, flickr, Facebook and even a blog to keep the community involved. “We’re welcoming new media because it’s so relevant to the book,” Rebecca Grawl, director of BRL, said.

For those of you who skipped Fahrenheit in high school, the book presents a society in the not-too-distant future where reading is illegal and “firemen” are employed to burn books, rather than eliminate fires.

“Ultimately, (Fahrenheit 451) has a great message, which is that books matter,” Grawl said. BRL is also offering prizes for participation, including drawings for gift certificates to Blockbuster, Barnes & Noble and the Drowsy Poet.

By participating in community-oriented events like BRL, Book it! and summer reading at our local libraries, we keep society further from evolving into the anti-book society of “Fahrenheit 451.”

For more information about BRL, check out the Web site, bigreadlynchburg.com, or search for the Facebook group. Several events remain on the calendar before the campaign ends Nov. 3. For more information on “Fahrenheit 451,” read it. Free copies are available, but check the BRL site for locations.

At the least — read something. You don’t have to read Dostoevsky, Dickens or anything you don’t enjoy, but keep the books coming. Read with friends. Read to yourself. Sure the Internet can provide all sorts of information about far away places and times, but a fictional portrayal can make you feel like you’re there. Find out for yourself what that “something” is in books.


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