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What Is Lost in a Nation That's Reading Less Literature?
One Alabama library is demanding jail time for late books. How is this happening in a nation that's reading less and less?
Earlier this year I finally picked up a card for the Los Angeles public library system. Libraries are essential institutions to human knowledge, both in decline during a period when we can uncover so much knowledge on a device and in vogue given sites like popular literary behemoth Brainpickings link each book to a public library listing.
On the first day in my local branch I’m standing behind a woman forking over $50 in late fees. Behind her is a man scrounges together the nearly $20 he owes from various pockets—a dollar here, fistful of coins there. I’m in awe. With three weeks and multiple reminder emails, how could anyone let this happen?
Late fees are as ubiquitous as libraries themselves. In fact, one Alabama library recently announced the stiffest fees yet: jail time. Given that the Athens-Limestone public library is down $200,000 in books, administrators made it a tax issue: you’re stealing from taxpayers; you have to pay the penalty.
The digital revolution seemed prime to destroy the physical book industry. That shifted with a recent uptick in hardcovers and paperbacks being sold. I for one took a two-year sojourn before realizing I can’t stand the lack of intimacy offered by my iPad. Sadly, while books are on an upswing, literature is on the decline.
The Washington Post reports that reading “novels, short stories, poetry or plays” hit a three-decade low, down to just 43 percent of Americans thumbing through at least one work of literature per year. That figure includes any format. Who wants to read 140,000 words when 140 is so much easier to consume (and forget)?
While digital books have made purchasing easier than ever, the medium has complications:
There are a lot more products and platforms competing for your attention today than there were 30 years ago — video games have exploded in popularity and movies have transformed from something you did at the theater to something you do at home. Perhaps most important, the Internet, with its infinite distractions, did not exist 30 years ago.
A huge slice of this troubling puzzle is attention. Journalist Nicholas Carr noticed that he and his friends were no longer able to finish a book. So he did what one does in such situations: he wrote a book about it. (The irony was not lost on him.) While digital technologies offer an unlimited well of knowledge to draw from at any moment, the medium is rooted in distraction. He continues,
Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.
It’s the difference between tweeting and comprehending: one spits out a thought as quickly as possibly, while the other requires what Carr calls ‘deep thinking,’ an ability to hold multiple nuanced ideas in your head at once and contemplate the landscape of possibilities. While there are many important works of nonfiction that help us understand complexity, literary fiction is one of the most potent thanks to its ability to conjure empathy in the reader. Literary fiction, as compared to nonfiction and even popular fiction, inspires a psychological awareness that
carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.
We are in dire need to empathy. Look up from your phone while in line and observe everyone else staring down at their phones. Gaze at your surroundings in a restaurant or on the road. Our navigational skills, physically and emotionally, are suffering greatly due to a growing inability to recognize others—physically and emotionally. We’ve never had so many stories available at the touch of a fingertip, yet the only story we’re concerned with is whatever one we’re living.
Which is why I shake my head in disbelief when someone says, ‘I don’t read.’ I’m equally baffled by the idea that reading fiction is just ‘for pleasure.’ Enjoying reading is important, but a good story does much more than incite dopamine. It’s a bonding tool, one that reminds us of our place in a larger world, much of which we’ll never actually see with our eyes. By imagining through the eyes of others, we tap into the heart of their culture, circumstances, and surroundings. It makes our world a little more complete knowing that we share experiences, and celebrate differences, across a broad spectrum of possibility.
The destruction of imagination to constant busyness is tragic, and no fee can possibly recover what is lost when we find out it’s too late. “Attention, please,” the mynah birds crow throughout Aldous Huxley’s fictional Island, though no one seems to be able to provide it.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Got $55 million lying around? If so, you might be able to score a spot aboard the International Space Station starting 2024.
- NASA awarded a contract to startup Axiom Space to attach a "habitable commercial module" to the International Space Station.
- The project will also include a research and manufacturing module.
- The move is a major step in NASA's years-long push to privatize.
Image: Axiom Space<p>But first, space-tourist-hopefuls would have to pass through physical and medical exams, and 15 weeks of expert training. After that, the trip sounds pretty comfy:</p><p>"There will be wifi," Suffredini <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/style/axiom-space-travel.html" target="_blank">told the New York Times</a> last year. "Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window. [...] The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn't really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping. [...] Pretty soon we're going to be flying a butler with every crew."</p>
A render of the ISS tourist experience.
Image: Axiom Space<p>In a blog post, NASA wrote:</p><p>"Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is one of <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-opens-international-space-station-to-new-commercial-opportunities-private" target="_blank">five elements</a> of NASA's plan to open the International Space Station to new commercial and marketing opportunities. The other elements of the five-point plan include efforts to make station and crew resources available for commercial use through a new commercial use and pricing policy; enable private astronaut missions to the station; seek out and pursue opportunities to stimulate long-term, sustainable demand for these services; and quantify NASA's long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit."</p>
NASA's push to privatize the ISS<p>When a Russian rocket launched the first module of the ISS into space in 1998, NASA expected the space station to operate for about 15 years. But the agency has extended the life of the ISS twice, with funding currently set to expire in 2024. NASA spends between $3 and $4 billion per year operating and shuttling astronauts to and from the station. That's a decent chunk of the agency's $22.6 annual budget. What's more, the "major structural elements" of the ISS are certified only through 2028.</p><p>Meanwhile, NASA has been eyeing other projects, namely: putting humans back on the moon in 2024 and establishing a lunar presence. So, to save and redirect money, the agency has been starting to hand over the aging space station to the private sector, which could use it for commercial research and space tourism.</p><p>But some have questioned the move to privatize the ISS, including NASA's own inspector general, Paul K. Martin.</p><p>"An obvious alternative to privatization is to extend current ISS operations," Martin wrote in a <a href="https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/CT-18-001.pdf" target="_blank">2018 report</a>. "An extension to 2028 or beyond would enable NASA to continue critical on-orbit research into human health risks and to demonstrate the technologies that will be required for future missions to the Moon or Mars."</p>
Image: Axiom Space<p>Martin noted that "research into 2 other human health risks and 17 additional technology gaps is not scheduled to be completed until sometime in 2024," meaning that any slip-ups in the process would mean such research might go uncompleted. He also wrote that it's "questionable" whether the private sector could turn a profit on the ISS without "significant" government funding. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center, <a href="https://docs.house.gov/meetings/SY/SY00/20180517/108302/HHRG-115-SY00-Wstate-LalB-20180517.pdf" target="_blank">also found</a> that it "is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025."</p><p>The implication is that, if the ISS is handed over to the private sector, taxpayers could end up indirectly supporting space tourism for the ultra-rich. Whether that's worth any of the research benefits that might come from the ISS post-2024 is anybody's guess.</p><p>As the ISS enters its final years, China <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/17/c_138479514.htm" target="_blank">plans</a> to complete construction of a manned space station in 2022.</p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
Parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.
Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?