Tuesday, December 20, 2011

And They Call This Book Country?

New York City has a rich, alluring literary tradition, but way too many of its kids don’t know how to read.

This issue makes it two years since I started a cityReader. I’ve decided to re-run the first issue. It best describes why I’m doing what I’m doing. Here it is:

Before you move here, you have this image of New York City as a bookish place. The photograph of the famous writers gathered at the Gotham Book Mart. The New Yorker. Random House. Esquire. The Strand. Susan Sontag. The Reading Room at the big library. Simon & Schuster. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Columbia. NYU. Tom Wolfe. The New School. Woody Allen. The New York Times Book Review. Vintage paperbacks. John Cheever. The New York Review of Books. J.D. Salinger. The Paris Review. The Algonquin. The Partisan Review. Delmore Schwartz. You even see it call itself Book Country in ads for some kind of book fest. It would be your kind of place, you believe.

Then, about the time you’re moving here a dozen years ago, you see a photo on the front page of the Times as you’re skimming the headlines before you sit down to read the the whole paper, and you think, oh, that must be a picture from some place like Harlan County, Kentucky about some hardscrabble issue, one of those features the Times does now and then about some place remote from New York and its refinement (see above). But when you’re in your seat on the couch and you look closer you’re shocked to see that it’s not Kentucky at all but a picture of one of the ball fields in New York City where the public high school teams play their games. There are other pictures inside of other sorry-looking fields. You’re not so naïve to think the public school fields would be like a suburban school’s fields, but you can’t believe that they’re that bad and you feel like a fool for being so unaware and you get angry at New York for not being a good person if that’s how it’s let its playing fields for its kids go. You hope your friends don’t see the article.

You move to Manhattan as planned and the condition of playing fields doesn’t come up much. Anyone you knew from college who lived here has moved to the suburbs, for reasons like playing fields for their kids. You do read, maybe prompted by that article, that some mogul(s) is fixing up some of the fields. That makes you feel better. You wanted more outrage from the citizenry maybe, but at least some progress is being made. What you really wish is that the Mayor would declare eminent domain and seize all sorts of parking lots and raze under-used buildings and put in rich, green, playing fields throughout the city. He could even take too-exclusive and over-blown Gramercy Park up the street from where you live and turn it into a hockey rink. You very much wish for spaces for kids here. You’re surprised no one else brings it up ever.

But that’s not really about the New York bookishness that drew you here. That’s only a first instance of how you are disabused of some of your New York illusions. Those nasty playing fields would be as nothing compared to what really starts bugging you, and what bugs you still about the city. But maybe those playing fields will come in handy as a metaphor. You’ve come to see too many of the public schools in this bookish city as just as hardscrabble and under-watered and un-tended-to as those awful-looking fields. You aren’t talking about the physical plants of the schools, though they usually look pretty uninviting. No, you are talking about the reading life of the kids in so many of those big schools.

In the neighborhood you live in now, you can stand, on a holiday, when traffic is light, in the center of the intersection in front of your apartment building, and you can see five bodegas of varying quality, two of them selling flowers. Three dry cleaners, one with washers and dryers. A newsstand with a busy lottery machine, an internet café. There’s an off-brand grocery store, a couple nail salons, two liquor stores, a CVS, a Starbucks, a Dunkin’ Donuts, two good bagel places, one pizza place (you refuse to count the one that sells a-shot-and-a-slice). Maybe a dozen restaurants, and almost that many popular bars. It’s a great neighborhood, with, hey, that exclusive park-with-a key just a short block away. It has all you wanted when you moved here. Except it doesn’t have a bookstore. The newsstand will sell you fashion magazines from Milan, muscle magazines, college hoops mags. But there’s no bookstore in sight. You can walk to Union Square to the vibrant, four-floored Barnes & Noble and you do that. And Strand is not far beyond that. But you wanted your neighborhood to have its own bookstore, a small one like where one of the bodegas is. Didn’t they say this town was Book Country?

You know you have no real reason to complain about what your immediate neighborhood lacks when you compare it to the parts of the city where those ball fields are. There aren’t really any bookstores out there. You think of that promo that said New York is Book Country. Just parts of it, they must have meant.

There’s another metaphor you use when you’re having a pint with friends and you steer the conversation your way and you start going on about kids and reading and the poor results poor kids get in reading tests. You say that in a small island culture where everyone lives near the shore, swimming is the most important skill that to needs be taught to kids so they survive, so they don’t drown. They don’t teach soccer or traditional dance steps until every child knows how to swim. When you see that your friends accept that as obvious, you bring up New York City’s schools. You say that in order to survive in this culture you have to know how to read, more than you need to know how to sing or shoot hoops or play volleyball or know who dug the Erie Canal. You have to know how to read before anything else. In order to survive really. In order not to drown.

The Mayor, in his treasure chest campaign, so touted the success he claims he’s achieved in the schools since he took them over, you thought he was maybe going to buy an aircraft carrier and fly onto it and claim the learning war was over. You get mad thinking that he would have been cheered.

Don’t they see, kids are drowning still. A third of them can’t read well enough to pass their swimming test. And you know that many of the kids who pass are really only dog-paddling. Why does the Mayor who fastidiously saw to it that 100% of the bars complied with his no-smoking edict, why does he not demand that 100% of the city’s kids know how to read? In Cleveland, where you came from 12 years ago, there’s a plaque on the front of the big library that says: Kids Who Read Succeed. Hell, maybe Cleveland is Book Country.

You wonder if anyone really cares. It isn’t talked about much. The Times and other publications talk about numbers and unions and rubber rooms. You can’t even name the Times’ education editor. Do they have one? You wonder why mothers of kids in the schools don’t take to the street with pots and pans and march down to Chambers Street to demand that their kids be taught to read. They know what it means for their kids not to know how to read, if only from seeing the neighborhoods filled with the bodies of kids who’ve drowned.

If the Mayor can up-end centuries of tradition and outlaw tobacco from public houses, why can’t he buck Albany and the Board of Regents and turn the city’s schools into reading academies where kids will immerse themselves in books and magazines, and the state syllabus be damned. It isn’t longer hours at school the kids need, it is focused hours. It is reading time. Time to make up for what they lacked in their earliest years. The city has them for 12 years. You think about that sometimes when you remember that that’s how long ago you came here. That’s a long time.

So you decide to start ‘a cityReader’. You’re not sure what you’ll do with it. But you’re tired of talking about it. Tired of your own metaphors. You want to go around and see what the deal is…why in 12 years the schools aren’t teaching the kids to read well enough to succeed.

The Voice of America
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

When you read Walt Whitman you wish he’d been the one chosen when some cities were all reading the same book. Remember that? We need to be reading him. He wouldn’t be wearing a Fox or an MSNBC T shirt if he were here. Not a hat that said Brooks or Krugman on it either. He transcended that kind of smallness. He was big. So big you feel small when you read him. Where did he get his expansiveness? Where did he get his confidence? Where did he get his love?

I’m reading him on the subway in the morning now. It’s quite a scene to raise your eyes from the book’s pages and see the American faces on their way to work.

The Best Book I Read in 2011
The Art of Fielding

If I’d kept a log of the books I read during the year, I might recall a title I liked more than The Art of Fielding. But I didn’t, so this is the book that comes to mind as my best book of the year. It’s a novel and I’m not that big on novels any more, and I wouldn’t have read it maybe if the woman who works at the bookstore I go to hadn’t sensed it was the right book for me that day. Isn’t that reason enough to go to a real store? Make that a resolution.

Two other books come to mind. Hemingway’s Boat. A biography of his post-Paris years. And then there’s a small paperback book called you are here by a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He has lots of books out. This is the first one of his for me. I think it changed me, though nobody’s noticed, or commented at all.

Morning subway station. Man with his Kindle.