All I Needed to Know I Learned from the Phonebook

Sing in me, O Muse: That like Navin R. Johnson—the “I was born a poor black child” character played by Steve Martin in the 1979 film The Jerk—I might cry aloud: “The new phonebook is here! The new phonebook is here!”

Time, of course, to cue the requisite twenty-something hipster joke:

What is a phonebook?

I have been a longtime phonebook reader, from way back when I first began to read—a reflection of either the value or detriment of a childhood marked by lots of free time and/or boredom.

With a hometown of only about 10,000, the phonebook was tiny, perhaps six by nine inches, neatly divided between the white residential pages and the yellow pages in the back. This was before the practice of including government listings in blue pages in the middle, but I do remember the standard instructions that applied to types of phone calls that existed back then: party lines (my aunt who lived on an isolated cotton plantation had one), operator-assisted calls, and, most mysteriously, station-to-station calls, which conjured up—for me at least—the idea of connecting to other worlds. [Read more...]

In Praise of the Printed Book, Part 2

By Warren Farha

Guest Post

Continued from yesterday.

An increasing torrent of books and articles reflect on the Internet as The Great Distraction, and I’ve had the opportunity recently to read a few. The first I’ll mention is The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, by Mark Bauerlein.

Bauerlein is not saying that millennials—youth who’ve grown up in the Digital Age—are less intelligent than their predecessors. He is saying that due to the digital environment in which they live and move and have their being, they are working with a much smaller store of acquired knowledge, contrasting the dizzying quantity of information available online with that which has actually been embraced and mastered.

Bauerlein collaborated with former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia on the influential NEA reports Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, which combined careful research and a sense of urgency about the rapid decline of reading in all age groups in the United States.

The omnipresence of screens and immersion in texting and social media have steadily pushed aside time devoted to reading or attendance to serious music, theater, and fine art. Bauerlein warns: [Read more...]

In Praise of the Printed Book, Part 1

By Warren Farha

Guest Post

Note: This post and the one following it have been condensed from an address given by the author.

I’ve been charged today with the task of explaining in some coherent form “why books?”—that is, paper and ink between covers—rather than “books” in some digital format. This is a visceral issue for me and not just because my vocation is the selling of conventional books. It touches me at points of my development as a human being.

The very first book I remember reading is as a four-year-old who could not yet really read, narrating the story as best I could by looking at and interpreting the interspersed illustrations (wood-cut engraving style drawings). It was one of the small bookshelf of books my family owned called The Real Book about the Wild West, by Adolph Regli.

I remember hours lying on our green-carpeted living room floor with this book, in my initial stages of reading. There were of course hours more with this book after I really could read, absorbing the engrossing narratives and unconsciously developing a love for history. [Read more...]

How Shall I Answer If God Calls My Name?

Here I am. Out of place. The computer terminal asks for my borrower’s card ID. I don’t have a borrower’s card for this library: Cherry Hill Public Library.

Once, I did. But it’s gone now, burned in a fire at my parents’ house decades ago, or packed in some unlabeled box on a shelf in the furnace room of my house in Asheville.

 

Here I am: in the library of my youth. Here, in my first years of discovering poetry, I scanned the 800s, slid The Poetry and Prose of William Blake from its place, considered its heft, added the title to the eternal list of books to read one day, one day outside of time, and restored it unopened to its exact location in Dewey’s rational universe. [Read more...]

Booked: Reading My Way Back to Faith

I accidentally read my way back to church in graduate school. I hadn’t been any kind of practicing Christian since early childhood, but I’d always been a reader, and in those three years, I read more widely and deeply than ever.

I was in training, an MFA candidate preparing to write the story of me: the coming of age of a Louisiana girl trapped in a fringe group of far-out Christians. It was going to be cool and detached and funny, of course. But something happened. Near the end of my reading list, in my last months of the program, I stopped thinking it was all so funny and started believing.

In my research I’d sought out books of theology and stories of conversion, but in the end, it wasn’t Augustine, Merton or Lewis who convinced me—at least, not in isolation. In classes I was studying film as literature, the New Journalists, short stories and memoirs and criticism, and for the first time in my life, poetry that wasn’t a Shakespearean sonnet.

It wasn’t any one book but the collective impression of all that work that sent me back to the pews, convinced there was something vast and eternal governing all, and yet so near and small as to fit in my palm, in a book, in a wafer of bread. [Read more...]


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