Monday, June 02, 2014

`The Lumber of Libraries'

My youngest son, soon to be a sixth-grader, enters middle school in the fall and will attend an “application-only…foreign-language magnet school.” I have no idea what that means in terms of practical, day-to-day learning, but he is pleased and already looking forward to the next academic year. The school has supplied a list of reading suggestions for the summer, and the prospects are discouraging. The English department recommends A Matter of Days by Amber Kizer, summarized this way by the school: “A worldwide pandemic kills almost every person on the planet,” etc. In other words, the usual post-apocalyptic, sub-literary rubbish. Another title is W.A.R.P.: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer: “A teen-aged FBI agent (in disgrace) and a young orphan trained as an assassin travel back and forth between Victorian and contemporary London via a wormhole. They become a family as they battle evil through time.” 

Both books were published last year, as were many of the other titles on the reading list. Both grant a certain value to science fiction, a sub-literary genre bolstered by movies, video games and comics. Both assume books of literary worth, time-tested by generations of readers, are of no interest or importance to young readers. Young people need not read non-fiction. Cultural history begins in the last twelve months. The past is a trope in a sci-fi plot. Tradition is nonexistent. Writers write ab nihilo, supplying entertainment. And yet, reading enthusiastically when young, without plan, is like assembling a habitable and various internal landscape, a place of solace and sustenance we can revisit for the rest of our lives. The alternative is poverty of imagination. In bookish terms, nothing is less imaginative than fantasy and science fiction. Will my son in twenty years have fond memories of a worldwide pandemic?  On this date, June 2, in 1759, Dr. Johnson wrote in The Idler #59: 

“Of many writers who filled their age with wonder, and whose names we find celebrated in the books of their contemporaries, the works are now no longer to be seen, or are seen only amidst the lumber of libraries which are seldom visited, where they lie only to show the deceitfulness of hope, and the uncertainty of honour.”

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