Open Book | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Open Book 

Those who don't read are missing out.

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A few weeks ago, I bought a used book. I had read a favorable mention of it by a newspaper columnist, and when I searched for the title on, I found a copy for only $5, shipping included. Who could resist? When the book arrived, I was surprised to find this handwritten inscription on the title page:
Bren ~
The years to come are the quality years!
My wishes for yours to be the best!
Happy 30th birthday.
Everlasting love,
Margie Aug. 27, 1993

The words, written in black ink, perhaps with a fountain pen, were shaped with feminine flourishes. I leafed through the book. None of the pages was dog-eared, and the spine of the binding was as rigid as the day it was glued. The cover was unblemished. I concluded the book had not been read before it found its way into the hands of a used-book vendor.

Ordinarily, the pleasure of a book takes a few chapters to develop a head of steam, but in this case, pleasure was lying in wait on the title page. I suppose “pleasure” is not quite the right word. A better choice is “arresting,” which was the effect of those few words inscribed in a discarded, unread book. I studied the cursive handwriting, parsed the words and wondered if Bren was a Brenda or a Brendan. My instinct favored Brenda—and Margaret—and then I wondered what has befallen the two faceless women since 1993. Have the intervening years been kind? Has Margie been disabused of the concept of love everlasting? I sensed the underlying story was about Margie. It was a sad one.

The rest of the book’s pages are devoted to gem-like sketches, the sole purpose of which is to delineate 77 abstract nouns. The author, J. Ruth Gendler, imbues such qualities as “anger” and “despair” with the characteristics of people you have met. “Anger sharpens kitchen knives at the local supermarket on the last Wednesday of the month,” while despair “papered her bathroom walls with newspaper articles on acid rain.” It is a short, satisfying book. My $5 investment has returned a double dividend: the joy of reading Gendler’s clever prose and the compelling mystery of Bren and Margie.

A growing percentage of Americans deny themselves such pleasure. A 2007 Associated Press-Ipsos poll found 25 percent of American adults hadn’t read a book in a year. I believe the number would be even higher had it not been for Harry Potter, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King and Oprah’s book club. The decline of reading in the United States has been amply documented. One study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) revealed “the startling declines, in how much and how well Americans read, that are adversely affecting this country’s culture, economy, and civic life as well as our children’s educational achievement.” The NEA response is Big Read, a program to promote reading around the country. It offers grants of up to $20,000 to community organizations willing to read and discuss a single book. The 29 novels on the 2011 Big Read master list include such favorites as The Grapes of Wrath, The Things They Carried and The Great Gatsby.

Chile is taking a different tack to encourage its citizens to read. Because half of the Chilean population doesn’t read at all, former president Michelle Bachelet decided to give 400,000 poor families a box of books. Each box contained nine books from a list of 49 selected by a “jury of literati.” The list included such authors as J.D. Salinger, Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende and Franz Kafka. It is hard to imagine a farmer in Chile plodding home after a day in the fields and picking up Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Then again, it is hard to imagine most Americans turning to Kafka as the credits roll on Dancing With the Stars. Utah may be the exception. I think it is a safe bet that Utahns read more than the average American. My confidence is due, in part, to a core value of LDS culture to seek “out the best books and words of wisdom; seek learning even by study.” You will appreciate my surprise to find that no one in Utah has a funded Big Read project this year.

Wouldn’t it be fun to get an NEA grant for a box-o’-books program like Chile’s? The hardest part would be to get agreement on a list of the Best Books. Catcher in the Rye? It was good enough for the Chileans, but it has the f-word. The n-word abounds in Huckleberry Finn. Nabokov is brilliant, but Lolita is rife with adult-child sex. That Metamorphosis is the story of a guy who turns into a cockroach would cause Sen. Chris Buttars (R-West Jordan) to bray. Sen. Margaret Dayton (R-Orem), whose gimlet eye detected anti-Americanism in the popular International Baccalaureate program in 2008, would protest if Grapes of Wrath were nominated.

And so we end, as we began, on a fanciful note: Mrs. Brendy Jensen, a Provo dowager who has funneled thousands of dollars into Republican coffers, is shopping at Barnes & Noble. After buying a couple of John Steinbeck novels, she runs into Margaret Dayton. Impulsively, Brendy asks for an autograph. This is what the senator writes on the title page of Grapes of Wrath:

Bren ~
The years to come are the quality years
now that the socialists are on the ropes!
My wishes for yours to be the best so
avoid anti-American books like this one.
Thanks for your support,
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