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Education Worldwide

The USA – “a nation of avid readers“?

An essay


Anette Zerpner

The American Way of Life and a lively reading culture – do these go together? Annette Zerpner’s travel report from daily life in the United States of America proves that these often go along very well indeed. The author was awarded the first prize of the Dietrich Oppenberg media award 2008 for her enlightening positioning of book culture in a society marked by social and political antagonisms. Her research in the U.S. was financed by a "kontext Recherchestipendium" from E.ON-Ruhrgas. The text was first published in "scripten 11".

"Outside of a dog, a book is man`s best friend. Inside a dog, it`s too dark to read." –The Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago greets its visitors to the department of popular literature with a linoleum floor, neon lights, many low-sized shelves filled with many well-thumbed paperback bestsellers and this pun by Groucho Marx (which cannot be translated literally into German) on the wall behind the counter. To its right hand side, this ironic statement of the comedian is compensated for by the quote from historian Barbara Tuchman appealing to cultural historic awareness and responsibility: "Books are messengers of civilisation." At the headquarters of the Chicago Public Library, not only the thoughts of philosophical heavyweights such as Ralph Waldo Emerson und Henry David Thoreau or the verses of local poets such as Carl Sandburg ("The peace of great books be for you.") or Gwendolyn Brooks ("Books are meat and medicine / And flame and flight and flower") have been placed on the walls. "Hey, have you any idea who has permitted that Thoreau guy to mess around up there?" an elderly man carrying a bag of books grins as he spots the visitor tilting her head back to decipher quotes in the entry hall. The willing American reader is not meant to leave his sense of humour behind in the locker when entering a public library – and he apparently does not do so either. Campaigns bearing slogans such as "Read, Learn, Have Fun", invite not only the youngest of readers to welcome reading as an exciting, fun-bearing pastime rather than regarding it as an educational stint. This seems obvious in the US-American society which is nowadays as hedonistic as it is puritan and it is a promising way of sending children on a reading path and assuring the awareness of adults.

Benjamin Franklin – a publisher, essayist, researcher, politician and, according to his autobiography, a man of strict principles and an even stricter daily routine – was unaware of all this when triggering the foundation of the first public loan library in Philadelphia in 1731. He would probably not have approved of it. The descendants of the pilgrim fathers regarded reading as their religious and political duty, not fun. In his classic work Amusing Ourselves to Death, the media scientist Neil Postman writes about his 18th century natives that reading meant a lot to Franklin’s contemporaries, perhaps more than to any other group of people before or after his time.
At the end of the 19th century, the poor Europeans pouring into the country gratefully regarded the schools and libraries their new home country offered free of charge as the first building blocks to the social ascent of their families. The Russian Jewish immigrant Mary Antin arrived when she was a little girl, and in her memoirs she celebrates the "sacred land" of 1912 and her successful assimilation through education, in a detailed and florid style. She describes the Boston public library as a palace where the delightful procession of opportunities is open to all of the citizens.
This rhetoric has changed little in the 21st century. "Libraries are part of the American dream," the announcement to the 2006 "National Library Week" begins: this has been celebrated annually in April since 1958, following the National Week of Laughter and preceding the gardening week. "These are locations of opportunity, education, self-help and lifelong learning." - “When I got my library ticket, I felt as if I received my citizenship – American citizenship"- Oprah Winfrey, president and figurehead of the "world’s biggest book club", is quoted on a wall of the central level of the Harold Washington Library. As one of the most well-known talk show hosts in the country, the Afro-American actress, who lives in Chicago, has become an instance in nearly all situations of life. For ten years, she has presented classics and new publications in her show. One of the few foreign titles presented in "Oprah`s Book Club" was The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. A million members can meet in virtual forums and in their neighbourhood, talk about the selected books and use catalogues of questions, expert counselling, other aids offered free of charge by the Club. Despite the prejudice felt by “old Europe“ against a nation of permanent TV watchers who regard a trip to Disneyland as a cultural activity, the book is a medium of value to many US Americans, and they are far less conscious when approaching it in forums and talks with authors. The deeply ingrained, fundamentally democratic view that everyone’s opinion is at least worth hearing contributes to this attitude. Many readers encounter fictional characters from novels on a face-to-face basis, emphatically comparing their experiences and occasionally demanding them to “pull themselves together” and “change their conduct”. For instance, a female reader writes in her online review of Edith Kelley’s novel on pioneering women "Weeds" rather disgustedly comments on the main character that: "she is self-centred, evades responsibility and shows no imagination for improving her situation. She is not a person you might like."

A professional critic will soon put this direct approach off as naive, denying the true meaning of literary criticism. Nevertheless, it is highly apt to assuring the popularity of reading and adding a dimension of shared experience to the lonely activity of reading – with fictional characters as well as with other readers. This need not be so explicitly put into practice as in the campaign "One Book, One Chicago", which has been adapted by other cities in the country, as "A City Reads a Book". A subconscious consensus suffices that literature is a good vehicle for self experience and self improvement, and that it can serve as the fundament for discussing shared values. This is expressly the case in the USA, while in Germany or France the schoolmasterly, traditional attitude of "The well-educated person should know this !" makes someone reach out for a book, or feel guilty for pushing it aside. Even the fight of the citizens of New York City, who finally rejected "A City Reads a Book" arguing that this was inappropriate for their diverse city, was, after all, a fruitful debate on a canon carried out by the broader public, as this has been the case since the outbreak of civil rights,, women’s and gay movements in the 1960s and 1970s – even though nearly exclusively at universities.
In Chicago, a good changing modus has been achieved in the eleven releases of the action campaign, which started in 2001, between the “classic“ literature that is now on the defense and books describing life from a particular ethnic perspective: To Kill a Mockingbird one time, then Elie Wiesel’s memories of concentration camps and last autumn, the volume of short stories that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, Interpreter of Maladies by the young Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri was selected. All of them were celebrated with an extensive support programme of discussions and public readings. "If you wore the badge reading `I read Mockingbird`, riding the underground from the city to the suburbs, you could sometimes talk to several people at the same time," Margaret Killackey, press officer of the Chicago Public Library relates. In Germany, too, some cities have initiated "A city reads a book " campaigns, but people were by far not as enthusiastic as in the United States, where the action campaign has become well-established. in many cities.

62% of all adults in the United States own a public library ticket, no matter if they use it for borrowing poems, cookery books, or DVDs, consult legal references or use the public computer for filing online job applications. This figure was issued by the American Library Association (ALA) located in Chicago, which knows best about the national reading habits practiced between California and Maine, Washington and Florida. This oldest representation of library staff in the world, which also has the highest number of members, has pursued the interests of librarians for 130 years. As other professional organisations do, the APA determines standards for vocational education and training, it organises further training and assists in legal difficulties. Furthermore, it develops uniform press and assistive materials ("Put your library into the limelight!") and an impressive multitude of campaigning material – including posters, stickers and mugs as well as ninute T-shirts where babies can choose between "Born to read" and "Naci para leer". Additionally, regular reading recommendations are issued for children and adults and the APA collaborates with many other organisations in action campaigns such as the "National Library Week", "National Poetry Month", "No Child Left Behind" or the selection of two thousand recipients of the "We the People"- bookshelf. The "National Endowment for the Humanities" collates this each year on an important topic of national heritage. Last time, all school and public libraries could sign in for an edition of "The Pursuit of Happiness". It would certainly be interesting to conduct such an action in Germany, in these times of stronger debates on values and national identity.
The state does not assist the ALA, and funding by sponsors does not provide a reliable contribution to the budget, either, Deborah Robertson, direcotr of the office for public programmes explains: "we are a nationwide, private organisation, which is mainly financed by member fees and its own publications. Hence, we are independent." She is joined by directors of two sub-organisations, Julie A. Walker from the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and Diane Foote from the Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC) which awards a whole range of prizes to children and youth books. The two most important national awards, that is the Newbery Medal for the best children’s book and the Caldecott Medal for the best picture book, are as prestigious in the USA as the German Kinder- und Jugendbuchpreis ­- Youth literature prize - is in Germany in the respectivve categories and they ensure great public interest to the ALSC each year. This kind of networking and bringing together diverse tasks does not exist for the national library association in Germany, hence the German organisation cannot be compared to its US-American sister as regards its public effectiveness.

While school libraries are as much a part of US-American school life as personal lockers and the cafeteria, this does not imply that everything is working perfectly. "Most of the schools have a room they call the library. A good school media centre does, however, also require well-trained staff and a programme. New media should not be viewed as competitors to books, but an excellent complement. But we should not leave the students on their own with them", Julie A. Walker, Diane Foote and Deborah Robertson agree. It is nowadays a matter of course to advertise posts for "school library media specialists", who can assist a 15-year old in finding reliable additional information regarding a science project on the internet as well as they can recommend historical novels on her favourite topic of interest to a 13-year old girl with a love for Egypt. The AASL has created standards of training for this extended vocational profile and issued directives for schools. It also counsels interested persons starting their school library from scratch via the internet. Liberal parents, teachers and librarians are regularly annoyed by legal actions against specific titles on the shelves of school libraries. This fact has got around "Most of the questions from abroad concern this particular topic," the ALA press officer Larra Clark regretfully remarks. Once the seventh Rowling volume with the provocative title Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is published in July, it is likely to cause offence once again. The ALA holds a special office for intellectual liberty giving advice to those affected by such cases. . "70% of all legal actions concern school libraries," states Julie Walker. Not only novels dealing with sorcering boarding school pupils are attacked, or Brokeback Mountain, Annie E. Proulx` homosexual love story about two cowboys, which seems to offer itself to conservative protectors of moral. Walker amusedly reports that even a volume of the popular forty years old picture books series Clifford, the Big Red Dog, where the hero is a giant red dog with human abilities, was banned from a primary school in California: "In the particular story, the parents are away from home so Clifford looks after the children. This was interpreted as an illustration of neglect unsuitable for children." Even though such arguments may seem absurd, librarians can rarely laugh about them. They constitute efforts at censorship the ALA defends itself against together with other organisations of book sellers, journalists, authors and publishers. Julie Walker, who used to be a school librarian herself, has another reason for believing that the so-called “Bikini edition“ of a certain sports magazine, which is published once each year, does not constitute a threat to a recognisable number of students: "That issue had always already been stolen even before we could put it on the shelf." Contrary to the national trend, free public access to books and other media has considerably improved in Chicago. The number of district libraries has risen from 24 to 76 since 1989, when the current mayor Daley came into office. However, the ALA representatives abate the enthusiasm by stating that on a nationwide scale, the objective of providing appropriate reading material for everyone has by far not been fulfilled yet. “In the inner city areas in particular, children are still in many cases cut off from the books that would be important to them." This does not only pertain to books written in other native languages than English, but also to stories children and youth from migrant backgrounds or ghettos can relate to because they reflect their unpleasant life experience. while nevertheless offering inspiration.

This Friday afternoon, the child and youth department at the Harold Washington Library Center is nearly deserted. One lone girl is sitting at one of the computers. "The pupils have the Friday afternoon off, and whoever is able to leave work early does so to do something with the kids," press officer Margaret Killackey explains. This does not seem to include a visit to the library. She assures that normally the scene is much livelier in the 76 neighbourhood and two regional libraries in the city area. The three monthly summer reading programmes that have been in existence with different partners since 1977 attract up to 43,000 children. Last year there was a cooperation with the Field Museum, and its large Tut-Ench-Amun exhibition guided the whole event. The fifteen year old library building, which is the largest in the world, offers nearly as much space for books, media and readers as nine football grounds, i.e. 70,000 square metres. The Chicago library does not constitute a sacred island, as the presence of security staff and notice boards renders evident. These show that not only a lack of enthusiasm for reading challenges the libraries: you are asked to comply to minimum requirements of hygiene, not to bring dogs, not to consume alcohol or drugs and not to use the library as a sleeping camp. All of the information material is available in Spanish here too, in the North of the United States. The computer centre where each member can surf the internet free of charge for a limited period of time is frequently attended. The library offers comprehensive stocks of fictional literature and non-fiction books, audiovisual media, a library for the blind, foreign language collections, reference volumes and further training material as well as a historic collection on the history of the city, a graphics collection of more than a million items, music collection including pianos and a room for chamber music and, finally, the Chicago Blues Archive. "This library is the city memory, and the people’s memory,. The Blues Archive in particular, which documents the local musical tradition, and regularly presents exhibitions, fulfils this task," Killackey explains.
An elderly Afro-American lady with short grey hair, dressed in an elegant, bright turquoise costume and wearing pumps in a fashion you would have probably worn to a tea party hosted by Jackie Kennedy, has spread out historic cookery books on a table and is copying from them in stiff handwriting. A number of closely written sheets proves that she has not been here for a short while only. “Miss, are you a librarian?" she calls after Margaret who hurries past. She promises to send someone along immediately: "People know what they can expect here as our readers and they do not hesitate to call for this service. After all, it is their library and they are proud of it."

ALA public programme director Deb Robertson replied carefully to the question as to how she views the commercial competition of book chain stores many people in the big cities nowadays consider the more comfortable alternative to the district libraries, which in many cases are somewhat neglected: "We try to take into account some of the features rendering Barnes & Noble so attractive when designing libraries." These characteristics include low thresholds and a leisure-time atmosphere: everybody feels welcome in these stores and as long as you do not misbehave in a massive way, you are left in peace. There are long opening hours, sofas and settees, pleasant music, the latest magazines and books are available in sufficient number and nobody seems to have anything to say against sampling issues you have not (yet) purchased while drinking a cup of coffee in the adjoining coffee shop. Some time ago, the bewildered German visitor to a New York branch of Barnes & Noble was surprised to witness the consequence of this behaviour in the shape of a stack of sodden magazines, hidden behind a screen on the way to the toilets. However, what is tolerated here would be ruinous to the limited stock of a public library.
The child and youth book department of a Barnes & Noble branch close to the Harold Washington Library is well attended even on a Friday evening at seven o’ clock. School bags, winter jackets and children’s shoes are strewn about on the floor between small tables. Stuffed animals and other toys are part of the inventory. Some mothers, still wearing their office clothes and with identification cards on their lapels, have obviously come here right after work and picking their children up. They browse peacefully or read picture books to their children. One family, tourists who have come from a small place in Indiana for the weekend, takes a rest from their first hours spent on the streets of Chicago in the adjacent Starbucks Café. The mother is looking at a handicraft book with suggestions on making a scrap book. The older daughter is delving into a volume from a series of books on a highs school group of girls sharing a lucky charm pair of denims, while the younger daughter has lost her heart to a stuffed polar dog that is for sale. "Oh, how cute. But darling, you have got so many stuffed animals already. Did you not want a book – the one with the horse- did you not want that?" Surprisingly peacefully – or perhaps too exhausted for protest? – the little girl returns to the stack of children’s books that have apparently been short-listed. Even when the brother and father return, the family takes its time to set off. This certainly seems a good place to have a rest from the city. Or to work: At the next table, a young woman is intensively studying her documents, and she has stacked books on the topic of economy next to an extra large cup of coffee. :"They are away on loan in the library, and sometimes it takes too long until they are available for loan at all" the student from next-door DuPaul University explains. "And they are expensive. That’s why I come here, and it is truly comfortable here, too." She does not feel guilty about this: "I am very careful not to spoil the pages with marks or creases." Other university students meet their learning group here. A subterranean walkway leads from the lowest floor of the shop to the university building.
The children’s book department has cleared out by nine o’ clock apart from an elderly man in an easy chair who has fallen asleep while studying chess problems and a yawning Latin American woman who is trying to prepare her four-year old son for the journey home. He is fully absorbed by a picture book on fire engines and extremely impatient with regard to the effort at dressing him and separating him from his read. We can hear the mother appealing to him in vain in Spanish that they have after all been here three hours. Her words are followed by wild resistance and screaming, till both of them have surmounted the staircase and reached the exit past the tills and the stationery department. Groucho Marx comes to mind once again while watching them through the window. The mother would do best to buy a dog for the little boy that would wait for him at home, to avoid such dramatic scenes of separation. The dog is, after all, man’s best friend beside the book.

Author: Annette Zerpner

About the author:
Annette Zerpner, born 1972, grew up in the Ruhr Area, lives in Berlin. Studied Literature in Constance and Dublin. Hospitation at the New York emigrant newspaper "Aufbau", the culture magazine Lettre International, F.A.Z.-Feuilleton and the "Stiftung Lesen". Writes about literature and culture, works on her doctoral thesis on US-American historical novels.

Dietrich Oppenberg Media Award
Dietrich Oppenberg, who died in 2000, was the founder and long-term editor of the NRZ Neue Ruhr Zeitung / Neue Rhein Zeitung in Essen and a promoter of journalistic culture in Germany. Since 2001, four excellent journalistic contributions on the topic of reading culture are awarded in his name each year. The prize is initiated by the Stiftung Presse-Haus NRZ and Stiftung Lesen.

Translated into English by Gwendolyn Schulte (DIPF)

See also: Promoting Reading in the USA