On reading, or the legacy of Donald E. Westlake (part 2)

Part 1 of this post.

I did not read another Donald E. Westlake novel after I graduated from high school and left Madison, even though he published many more volumes before he died in 2008.  I discovered other writers and topics that garnered my attention, both through my studies in college and graduate school as well as outside of those topics.  But I have maintained my love of reading throughout the subsequent years.

When I finished my doctoral studies and had a few months free between graduation and when I started my first job as an assistant professor, I bought myself the present of a copy of the John Updike book, Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy. The volume, published a couple of years earlier, was a compilation of Updike’s four Rabbit novels, each of which I had read in sequence over a period of about 20 years earlier in my life.  For me, it was an indulgence to be able to sit and reread all four of these books, which were among my favorites of all time (ranking right up there with Westlake, of course), and which chronicled the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom from high school through the end of his life.

In the Internet era, where so much information is available at our fingertips on our phones and other devices, and with the time demands of work and family, I do not read as many books as I did back during my days prowling the stacks of Scranton Memorial Library.  My time is generally spent on shorter pieces; newspaper and magazine articles, and on-line publications that require less commitment and attention.

But when I do have the time and opportunity to read a book, which is often limited to vacations or long plane rides, I still get immense enjoyment from the experience.  As I reflect on that satisfaction, I give much credit to Donald E. Westlake and Scranton Memorial Library.  My family certainly had the resources to purchase books for me, and on occasion I would receive one as a gift from my parents or siblings.  But it was the fact that I could so easily get to the library and let myself wander around both physically and intellectually, that helped me develop an interest in and appreciation for reading.

Today’s generation of youth has so many more things that can soak up time and attention than were available to me.  Television alone, whether through cable or the Internet, typically provides as many as one hundred times the options that I enjoyed.  Bruce Springsteen’s song of 1992, “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On),” was numerically outdated not long after it was released. Video games, other apps (how long will the Pokemon Go phenomenon last?), and social media also compete for attention.

All of these options cause me to worry that today’s and future generations will not develop that same appreciation for reading books that I did.  I walk around the campus of the University of San Francisco or on the streets of the city, or look around in coffee shops, or glance at the people around me on the bus or an airplane, and it seems that almost nobody has a book open in front of them anymore.  More typically people are glued to a screen, whether it be a phone, tablet, or laptop (an act of which I am just as guilty as many others).  Yes, you do on occasion see someone with a Nook or Kindle, or some may be reading a book on their phone or laptop, but this more often seems to be the exception than the rule.

But after fretting about this some, I have come to realize that perhaps the situation is not as dire as it may appear.  Recent news reports have described how print books are rebounding and gaining traction against the onslaught of e-books (I  still appreciate the tactile experience of holding a book in my hands, and have never read an e-book).  I take this as a good sign, and that all of the warnings about the book publishing industry – will it go the path of daily newspapers, many of which have struggled to survive in the Internet era? – are perhaps overwrought.

I also think about my own daughters, representatives of the current generation with whom I have had the most ongoing contact.  I often get concerned that, like most of their peers, they spend too much time in front of their phones or laptops.  But when I do get to spend time with them, I realize that they do read, and they probably do so more often than I am led to believe.  I can see the joy they experience when they have a book in their hands, how it can draw them in and engage them in ways I remember from when I had been their ages.

I also know that reading a book is often a solo experience that takes place behind closed doors, invisible to an external observer.  As I think back on my childhood, I recognize that people who did not know me well would similarly not have been able to see that I enjoyed reading as much as I did.  Perhaps if they saw me at the library, or the rare occasions that I may have been in a public place with a book open in front of me, they may have gotten a glimpse into my love of reading.  But for the most part, this affection for books would have been missed by others.

I often think ahead to retirement, which is not so far into the future anymore that I can begin to see the very fuzzy outlines of what it may look like, and I fantasize about rereading all of Westlake’s novels.  I do not know if I will actually do that or not, but it is an activity that is enjoyable and satisfying to contemplate and brings a smile to my face.  And I hope that Donald E. Westlake, wherever he is, would smile along with me.