LET’S UNPLUG our Atari “Space Invaders. ” Let’s let the weeds grow, the bed remain unmade, the dust gather, and let’s forget whatever excuses we’ve been using over the years. Let’s read good books – no, great books -together.
Twenty years ago the International Paper Co. produced an extended series of advertisements under the general heading “Send Me a Man Who Reads. ” The series became an instant advertising classic, eliciting nearly one million requests for reprints. Their message was clear and documented: People who read more, achieve more.
In case after case, from doctors to lawyers to architects to business executives, researchers found a direct link between the amount one reads and the success one achieves. Likewise, 30 years earlier in a celebrated treatise entitled Vocabulary and Success, Johnson O’Connor, founder of the Human Engineering Laboratory, reported that achievement in almost any field could be correlated almost directly with vocabulary (knowledge of the exact meaning of words); vocabulary grows out of the habit of regular reading.
Unfortunately, the further we get from formal education, the further we also get away from good reading. Nearly 40 per cent of American adults admit they never read books. Among those who do read, most spend their time on recently published works, the transient and the unimportant. (Time magazine’s best-seller list recently included The Beverly Hills Diet and Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life. ) The classics are avoided.
And there is no reason to believe that Dallas is any different. In fact, newcomers here are often dismayed at the bibliophilic desert of downtown Dallas, a “dry” area in terms of bookstores. Aside from B. Dal-ton’s and Cokesbury -both chains -there is only one small independent bookstore in all of downtown Dallas: The Book Merchant in the Mercantile Bank Building.
But if it’s hard to buy books in downtown Dallas, it’s easy to get them for free. We have, at 1954 Commerce Street, one of the finest libraries in the Southwest, operated by some of the finest librarians. We can’t overemphasize the resources of this facility: 710, 000 volumes in the central library; 18 branches serving all areas of the city with access to books all across the country; a $1 million annual acquisition budget; and a new $40 million building scheduled to open in 1982.
And if we’re looking for a season to begin to read seriously again, summer could not be a better time. Time off or time at the pool could not be enriched more than by the accompaniment of a book. It is fair to say that well read people have substance; those who don’t read do not.
At the last two places I’ve worked, Newsweek and The Washington Post, we organized reading clubs. At The Post we started small -one other member just out of high school who was enthusiastic but, like most high school graduates, unread. We bought two copies of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and we started reading together.
The word spread. Soon we had secretaries, reporters, editors, printers, and pressmen asking if they, too, could read Pride and Prejudice with us. Men began reading aloud to their wives and vice versa. If they weren’t saving their minds, there was a good chance they were saving their marriages.
From Jane Austen we proceeded to Thackeray to Trollope to Hardy to Shakespeare and, to this day, 10 years later, many of us still correspond to discuss good books.
At Newsweek, flushed with success from The Post, we faced a more difficult problem: I was working mainly with business school graduates who had been reading little other than Business Week or the Harvard Business Review. In fact, the best-read person on the staff had read only one serious book in the past year: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Again, Jane Austen to the rescue.
The fact is that while most people would like to read good books, they tend to avoid approaching the classics, perhaps because of unpleasant experiences in school or because so many years of neglect have convinced them that they can never catch up.
It’s a shame because not only are the classics the best and the most enjoyable books to read -that’s how they became classics – but also because only a relatively small number of books, perhaps 100, makes up the core of important reading. It is not too late, regardless of age or years of reading inactivity, to become well read. We simply have to take it one good book at a time.
And that brings us to Dallas. It might be time to form another club, and I’m willing to start it if you’re willing to join it. There are no membership cards, no dues, and no rules. The only requirement is the desire to read good books. The less structured and exclusive the club, the better.
And since I’ve got access to a typewriter and a printing press, I’ll begin suggesting the books, which will be recommended from time to time on this back page. (The people at The Book Merchant, 1810 Main Street, have agreed to reduce the price of our selections, mainly paperbacks, by $1 for anyone requesting our title). And your suggestions of titles are, of course, welcome.
But to get things started, let’s begin with perhaps the best novel of English manners ever published: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Miss Austen begins her tale, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, ” and goes on to present a novel that will be as enjoyable to readers in Highland Park today as it was to her British audience in 1813. I’ve read it about a half dozen times -Disraeli is said to have read it 17 times -and look forward to reading it again. So will you.
And in closing, it is worthwhile to listen to Dr. Louise Cowan, former chairman of the English Department at the University of Dallas:
“Books are taking on again their original and proper task: to hold, as amazingly convenient, inexpensive, and pleasurable containers, an experience, step by step, in which the reader can participate – indeed, in which he must participate if he proceeds.
“And that is the building of a world inthe imagination which, during the lengthof the experience, lifts life into a neworder, enabling the reader to see its potentialities and to renegotiate its value. Thisjourney of the soul is called education; itshould go on throughout life; and booksare the instruments par excellence for itsaccomplishment. “