Maybe you saw the Jimmy Kimmel short last week. He asks folks on the street to name a book, any book. And they can’t. One guy says, “The Lion King.” Or did he say “The Lying King”? Either way, we’re meant to say “Ouch.”
Maybe you felt a frisson of horror.
I know I did. I suppose humiliation sells. Bully for you, then, Jimmy.
The day I saw the clip, or the half of it I could stomach, my pal Linda and I stopped at our favorite local bookstore. I had just finished the audio version of Brideshead Revisited, and wanted to see if I could find a print copy. And Linda needed “something light, for summer.” And then she giggled and said it had to be “…something by a woman. Or a Scandinavian.”
On the way in, I spotted a vintage hardcover in the window, I Love Books, by John D. Snider. It had an irresistibly, deliciously sexist cover. An uncomfortably dressed, proper-looking fella sits in a comfortable chair, reading, while a woman in an uncomfortable chair, knitting, gazes adoringly at him.
(One imagines her thinking, “Shoot. When is he going to finish that thing? I’ve knitted five sweaters already.”)
I asked the gal at the counter whether I could have a peek, and she rummaged around behind a curtain until she found it.
“I Love Books,” she read, admiring the cover. Then she flipped it open and checked the price. “$5.50.”
She handed it to me, and I cautiously had a sniff. It hadn’t been in a smoker’s home, so it passed the first test.
Then I whisked the pages, that move that is like shuffling a deck of cards, and caught that pleasing whiff of old-timey books. Oh, boy.
And! It cost less than you could spend on a fancy-pants latte, which is my litmus test.
First published in 1942 and reprinted several times, this revised edition came out in 1945. None of the names rang any bells—the publisher, the cover design fella, or the author. Since I’d forced myself and my children to read Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, I was surprised that this one hadn’t had a wide enough reception to get some traction.
On the first page Mr. Snider implores us: “A few cents’ outlay will get almost any one of the vital books, and it is a marvel that any young man or woman today should neglect to gather some of the world’s best volumes and cultivate a taste for them. Books are of the people, by the people, for the people. They are no longer a luxury; they are a necessity.”
O-ho! Not just knitting for you, young ladies. Young men and women! And! A shout-out to democracy!
Obviously, I had to buy it.
At home I asked the Google Lady about the publisher and realized why we’ve forgotten dear Mr. Snider. Review and Herald Publishing is affiliated with the Seventh-Day Adventists, so likely had a limited audience. The only reference I could find to the cover designer, T.K. Martin, concerned his association with the artist whose paintings are “all over” Mormon churches.
I couldn’t find much information about Mr. Snider himself. Although I did find that he had written several articles for Ministry Magazine in the 1930s.
In 1936, Read or Perish:
“No religious leader can justify his ignorance of, nor his indifference to, the books that his people are reading on the ground of the preeminent importance of his own specialized reading.”
We could cut “religious,” stick with “leader,” end at “ignorance,” and the thesis and exhortation would be sadly apt for today. Also, I get the feeling I’d have enjoyed having Mr. Snider and his presumptive wife over for dinner.
Read or Perish was perhaps a follow-up to his Golden Moments article from 1934: “The economic conditions which have necessitated the release of certain of our workers have increased the duties of others, making it more difficult than ever for them to find adequate time for reading and meditation.”
Again. Eerily timely.
I Love Books is long, over 500 pages, and divvied up into four sections: “Why We Should Read,” “What We Should Read,” “How We Should Read,” and “When We Should Read.” Which is a lotta “shoulds.” The structure and content are practical and encouraging, and while he does point to moral fortitude and whatnot, there is none of the particular type of religious language in the book that we see in his Ministry articles.
But he was consistently flowery. And Mr. Snider, bless him, was a master of stringing together quotations and folksy anecdotes. Gloriously! Nearly every page delivers a gem like this one:
“Lowell tells us that desultory reading communicates as little intelligence as the messages that run along the telegraph wires do to birds perched upon them. Blackie says that such reading resembles a little dog running about a lawn, sniffing at everything but catching nothing. Indiscriminate, omnivorous swallowing of books is just as sure to cause soul dyspepsia as is thoughtless gluttony to bring indigestion.”
Who wouldn’t sign up immediately to join a Desultory Reading Group? Pretty much all the book groups I’ve been involved with have been partially or entirely desultory—a word I especially like to hear in the voice of Alan Rickman’s Professor Snape.
In the car that day, heading home from the bookstore, I read aloud a few tidbits from I Love Books.
“Okay. Nicole. Do you really think that a person who is not a reader is going to be encouraged to start reading because of that book?! No.”
But it sure is delightful. And I’ve always said that the best reason I could think of for reading as much as possible, for education generally, is the getting of more jokes.
Is it a problem that Americans aren’t reading actual books? Perhaps. Maybe even probably. At the very least, the non-readers are missing out on, well, delight.
A playful mind is facile, can unpack complexity. Which is what I think educators might be getting at, ultimately and ironically, when they’re droning on about critical thinking.
And when have we ever been in greater need of flexible, curious minds? At this particular juncture in our history, what with corporate fascists in power, a surge of nativism and racism, and, oh, all kinds of fascism—we’re a mess. An undereducated populace is surely dangerous.
The Jimmy Kimmel short asks us to glory in how stupid Americans are. Wholly aside from the fact that it is entirely possible to become a responsible, educated citizen without reading actual books, it is gravely irresponsible to celebrate ignorance.
Mr. Snider was talking about books in particular, but it was 1945. Curiosity, engagement, access to education, and, sure, books, are “…no longer a luxury; they are a necessity.”