"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."
- Groucho Marx
A few years back, I had a girlfriend that would get weepy eyed every time she
talked about John Updike’s A Prayer For Owen Meany. I even got her a hand signed
first edition of the novel for her birthday, she loved the book so much. She repaid my
gift by plunging a knife into my expensive leather jacket, stomping on the remains of
my self-esteem, and worse, but I am not bitter. (Okay, I’m a little bitter, well, a lot
bitter, okay, on a bitterness scale of 1 to 10, I am at a 15, okay, red hot sun
bitterness… but let’s not talk about it.)
Still, at the time, Updike’s tome had escaped my notice and I decided to read the
novel in order to better understand her and figure out why it spoke to her.
I bought an old paperback copy and set to work. If you have not read A Prayer For
Owen Meany, it is a wonderful read. I flipped through the pages, devoting large
chunks of time to the book every night. With one chapter left to go, I looked at the
clock and realized I had to go to work. I returned from work to discover much to my
shock that my puppy had eaten the last fifteen pages of the book. She had never
done anything like that before or since.
It would be a few days, maybe even a week or two, until I would be near a
bookstore again and that was counting on them having it in stock. It seemed like too
much effort to order another copy from Amazon. Who knows what could happen in
a week or two? I could get hit by a bus. A loose bolt from an airplane could plunge
through my roof, killing me in my sleep. Plus, purchasing a whole new book for just
fifteen pages was like a cheese grater to my Norwegian cheapness. Five dollars for
fifteen pages is highway robbery. I equally hated the notion of sitting around a
bookstore reading a novel I have not paid for like I was a homeless bum.
Looking at my puppy, I realized that the only way I was going to piece together
what happened to John Wheelwright and Owen Meany was with a flashlight, a pair
of rubber gloves, and a laxative, and no story is worth that.
“Horary, I found the top half of page 238. Maybe if I give her a lot of prune juice, I
will get page 239 tomorrow.”
Not going to happen. (I finally finished the book about six months later.)
I tell this story because, according to the Pew Research Center, 28 percent of adult
Americans have not read a book in the last year, and that is including audio books,
comic books, and anything written by the cast of Duck Dynasty.
On the positive side, 28 percent of Americans have read at least eleven books in the
last year. Fifty-five percent of American adults claim to have read a book for
pleasure in the last year.
What do these statistics mean? They mean Americans are great liars. Oh, I am sure
some of them think they have read a book in the last year, maybe flipped through a
Victoria’s Secret catalog, read their iPhone manual, or something, but the Pew
numbers conflict with other data that has been gathered over the last few years.
Seventy percent of the population has not been to a bookstore in the past five
years. Eighty percent of American families have not bought a book in the last year.
Thirty-three percent of people that graduate high school will never read a book
again. Of those who graduate college, the supposed best and brightest our society
has to offer, 42 percent have not read a book since.
If 72 percent of Americans are reading books, they certainly are not understanding
what they are looking at unless they are trying to figure out why Dick and Jane
tumbled down the hill. Fifty percent of adult Americans cannot read beyond an
eighth grade level. Forty-six percent of adult Americans cannot understand the
instructions on the label of the prescriptions they take. I guess take orally twice a
day, do not operate heavy machinery, do not consume alcohol, and those type of
instructions are just too hard to follow. I don’t even want to think about the
problems that might arise if one cannot follow the instructions for suppositories.
“Doc, are you saying I was supposed to take my nitroglycerin pills orally? Like put
them under my tongue? No wonder it always felt like I had just ate at Taco John’s
every time I felt a heart attack coming on. Well, thank goodness, that is one trip
south of the border I will never have to take again.”
Here is the thing about the 28 percent of the adult population not reading a book in
the last year, even taking into account that there is probably a massive amount of
lying going on, that number is three times as high as it was in 1978 when only 8
percent of the American public claimed not to have cracked a book in the previous
dozen months. Forty-two percent of these surveyed in the late 1970s claimed to
have read at least eleven books over the past year. So, either Americans are a lot
more honest or we are reading books less.
The answer is obvious. Even though we live in a world of Amazon, iPads, and those
neat free mini-libraries that look like birdhouses that people are putting in their
front yards, there is no reason a person should not have access to a book of some
kind, but the shame of not reading has disappeared. We also have more electronic
(If you are one of those people who have put one of those take a book/return a book
libraries in your front yard, I just want to say I love you and would give you a hug if
you were in front of me. Okay, I am Norwegian. It would just be a firm handshake
lasting no more than 1.7 seconds. Still, you are my heroes.)
Instead of seeing someone on a bus or sitting in the grass reading a paperback, he
or she is more often than not Snapchating with a friend, posting a picture of the
burrito they are about to eat to Facebook, or watching a YouTube video. If someone
does not like watching an episode of Pawn Stars on the History Channel, they can
watch Hardcore Pawn on truTV. Reading takes discipline and finding a quite place to
focus. It means being able to follow a plot, which is almost impossible when your
friend Kenny is sending you a selfie of himself and the neutron bomb he just left in
the Arby’s restroom for the janitor to clean up.
I am sorry if I sound old to some of you, shaking my cane, and talking about how I
had to read a book walking uphill to school both ways. I have an e-reader but hate
using it. I must admit I love the touch and feel of a book, physically being able to turn
the pages, and being able to return to dog-eared pages again and again. I have them
piled up around my desk, stuck in windowsills, and jammed under tables.
I weep with the poet Ben Jonson as he stands at the grave of his son and says, "Here
doth lie Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry." I puzzle why so much depends “upon a
red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water
beside the white
I laugh with Groucho Marx as he infuriates his wife after she insisted he name drop
in order to get a table at an expensive restaurant. He walked up to the maître d’ and
said, “Good evening, sir. My name is Jones. This is Mrs. Jones, and here are all the
little Joneses.” Furious, his wife would send him back to the maître d’ to tell the truth
so they could get a table right away. Groucho would apologize to the maître d’, admit
he lied, and say, “My name is Smith. This is Mrs. Smith, and here are all the little
Books can take us to heights of what it means to be human and bring us low to our
knees. They are worlds to escape into. We sail with Ahab, hitchhike with Arthur
Dent, and visit our man in Havana with Graham Greene. Books are a place to pick up
facts and knowledge like apples on a tree. And, if you are lucky, really lucky, you find
that one book that in a few sentences or a paragraph, maybe just a line, you discover
yourself, you find meaning, and you find possibilities never imagined.
Groucho was right. It is too dark to read inside a dog, god knows I thought about
trying that one night, but he was equally right about books being our best friends. It
is sad to see such a large percentage of the population is so lonely.