Public Displays of Intelligence

Public displays of intelligence are on the rise.

Since late May I have been traveling around quite a bit. Although I have been mostly confined to the northeastern United States, I have also made a trip to the Midwest. For some reason I have witnessed more people reading actual books in public than in the past. Whether it’s a park bench or in an airport, people are reading books. Despite the recent apocalyptic tone in Washington regarding the current budget crisis, I would argue that seeing people read in public is a sure sign that the world is not ending.

In all sorts of public places people are reading. I’ve witnessed people engaged in books on electronic readers and good old-fashioned paper and ink books. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people I have seen reading in public have been holding physical books. This is surprising since the media would have us believe that the death of the physical book is upon us. I would venture to guess that those reading physical books are reading them not because they cannot afford the host of electronic readers out there on the market today, the Kindle, the Nook, and even the iPads are all relatively inexpensive, but because they prefer the physical book to an electronic one. I can only conclude, in my own unofficial way, that the death of the physical book has been proclaimed far too soon. In fact, from what I saw on my travels, the physical book is far from dead.

The debate over the death of the physical book is really a debate on a delivery system. The really important fact is that people are still reading. I witnessed people reading all kinds of books. I am happy to report that most of the people I saw reading in public were reading novels. Once, in my misguided youth I would have lamented the fact that people were reading the wrong kinds of novels (Danielle Steel, Stephen King, anything by Dan Brown), but now I am just happy that people are reading novels. I did see quite a lot of people reading novels that made me cringe, but that is just my own snobbishness coming out. Americans are reading, and as a result I have newfound hope that we are not heading toward cultural bankruptcy.

Last week I was at Knoebels Amusement Park in the hills of Pennsylvania. As my son and I were waiting in line to get on a roller coaster I noticed that the attendant was reading a book. As I got closer I was able to look over her shoulder. To my great amazement I saw that she was reading The Stranger by Albert Camus, one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. I asked her if she was reading this for a class, and she informed me that she was reading the book for “fun.” Reading Camus for fun! She told me that although she was only about twenty pages into the book, she was enjoying it very much so far.

Seeing that young woman reading Camus may only be anecdotal proof that Americans are not giving up on serious fiction, but I’ll take what I can get at this point. It’s encouraging to see so many public displays of intelligence across the United States. Perhaps in these dark times people will return to stories.

One can only hope.

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