People of the Book

Recently, I was at an orientation for about 45 people who were starting a new job. As an icebreaker exercise, everyone was asked to say their name, and to name their favorite book or movie. I was surprised when three or four people said something like, “I don’t read, but my favorite movie is…” Wait, what? What do you mean you don’t read?
Clearly, these people weren’t saying they don’t know how to read. I suppose they meant they don’t read books, or they don’t read for pleasure. I’d like to think they at least read magazines or newspapers, or at least news websites. But maybe they don’t.
Muslims call the Jews, as well as Christians, “the people of the book,” because we all (presumably) read and study scripture, such as the five books of Moses. We Jews also have taken to calling ourselves “the people of the book.”
Literacy rates among Jews in the diaspora have often been higher than others around them, partly because of our study of Torah, Talmud, and other religious writing. Jews were often employed as scribes, because of their competency in reading and writing.
I grew up in a completely secular household, yet I was raised to think of books as wealth. Our home was filled with bookshelves overflowing with books. Old books were never thrown away. They were kept, given away to friends, or donated.
I learned about the joys of wordplay by reading Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth,” read about the American frontier in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, and entered the world of fantasy and adventure offered in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
When I got to college, I had two big shocks to my understanding of how others use and treat books. One came when I went to the Optometry Department to get my vision checked. I was given a three hour battery of tests, not because they were concerned anything was wrong with my eyes, but in order to give the optometry students practice.
One of the tests they conducted was designed to measure the strength of my eye muscles. Looking at the results, an optometry student said to me, “Wow! Your side-to-side eye muscles are so strong, it’s as if you could read all day without your eyes ever getting tired!” and I remember thinking, “You mean there are people who don’t read all day?”
I made an even more astonishing discovery the first time I went to the bookstore and browsed through the used textbooks, looking for a bargain. To my amazement, many of the books were marked with highlighting, or other writing! In my house, nobody would ever dream of defacing a book like that. What were these people thinking? In four years of college, I never did learn not to cringe every time I saw a student hovering over a textbook with a highlighter in his or her hand.
So perhaps you can understand my surprise and dismay when I attended the job orientation and heard those otherwise intelligent and personable people so casually declaring, “I don’t read.” What an incredible opportunity they are missing. I wish I could give each of them a book, just one, that would engage them and get them started.
So, what’s your favorite book?