If You Build a Little Free Library, Will People Read?

By Stephanie Cohen
This article first appeared at Acculturated.com


This summer I’ve been to two beaches—one in New Jersey and one in Connecticut. At both places my kids found free “libraries.” On one boardwalk, a boat shaped bookcase invited beachgoers to grab a title and settle in under their umbrella. At the next beach, a cart with rows of books for the taking next to the lifeguard office made us stop and browse before heading down to the water.

In recent years, the Little Free Library movement has invited residents of any town to build a small one room library at their homes—one room means the size of a large birdhouse—to lend out books to anyone who passes by. All of these efforts are loosely tied to the “take-a-book-leave-a-book” philosophy that encourages people to share books, lend books, give them away, all in an effort to cherish the power of the bound book. Little Free Library will sell you a book box to install outside your home for between $275-$500, throw some books in or cultivate a collection, and sit back and watch. There is a Neighborhood Library Builders Guild, if you want to build your own personal-styled free library box.

Do a search of the news and you’ll find Girl Scout groups, Cub Scout packs, and Rotary Clubs building free libraries. You’ll find these little libraries outside a senior center in Minnesota, in front of public schools and soup kitchens, and on a street in Yemen. From place to place, people are becoming DYI librarians with these make-shift, open access, grab-and-go lending boxes of books. They are also testing our instinct and our willingness to reach for a book when there is no charge and no responsibility to return it. “If they’re taking books, the blessing is that they’re reading,” one free library owner said.

The idea of book vending machines is hardly new, nor is the notion of making books free. A library without a librarian is at the heart of EnvisionWare’s Library of the Future—a mobile book checkout and return system. Think of a bank ATM machine, only this one dispenses up to 400 books.

As a recent article in New York Magazine described, free book vending machines have sprung up in a section of Washington, DC to distribute books to children as easily as a bottle of Gatorade or bag of Doritos. Sponsored by JetBlue, the vending machines are part of the airline’sSoar With Reading program, which has given away 27,000 books in its first year. The vending machines are now deployed at five locations in Detroit as well, and will dispense 100,000 free books. These vending machines are aimed at countering so-called “book deserts”—neighborhoods where access to books, magazines, bookstores, and libraries is limited or nonexistent.

Free books have not always been a staple of American society—nor has the idea of giving away books. In 1878, no state had passed a compulsory free text book law, according to William Isaac Marshall, in his 1895 study, “Should the Public Schools Furnish Text Books Free to All Students.”

But a handful of individual cities had acted earlier. Philadelphia was the first city to offer students free books beginning in 1818. New Jersey was guaranteeing free books for compulsory education in a majority of cities by 1892, while specific cities like Newark and Paterson had acted decades earlier. Chicago became known as the “only first class city” with a population above 300,000 in 1889 not to offer free text books, according to Marshall.

And the free books movement of today is dwarfed by the efforts of earlier philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie and others. Public libraries, for most children, continue to be the best place to find free books. The New York Public Library just announced that it has made 300,000 books available for download for free using a new app. Free books are also available through some UPS stores in the summer, via the Read to Grow program which provides free books to families of newborn babies before they leave the hospital, or through nonprofits like Better World Books that hand out over 3,000 free books via a bookmobile in Indiana. For anyone with an internet connection, Project Gutenberg offers over 50,000 e-books, including most of the classics.

And yet, while it may seem like we are awash in ever more free books—both print and e-books—the truth is that the number of Americans who report reading a book has declined. This—not the existence of “book deserts”—is the real challenge. Placing books on American street-corners and sidewalks where they might benefit those who would otherwise have the furthest to drive, bike, or walk to encounter a book is certainly noble. But the impact will likely be limited unless we double down and aggressively nurture a reading culture in our citizens from a young age. You can place books in any desert, but no one will drink if they don’t first understand what it means to be thirsty.

What Happens if Schools Back Away From Challenging Literature?

By Stephanie Cohen
This article first appeared at Acculturated.com. 

I recently spent time with a class of fourteen-year-olds, talking about words, specifically words strung together to form speech. I started out by asking them whether they thought words could make people act in a particular way. “Can words lead to action?” I asked. There was some thinking and mulling over.

We spent several weeks discussing, reading, and studying many of the greatest (and infamous) words read aloud: the Gettysburg Address, Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech in Germany, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, a host of Winston Churchill speeches from World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speeches, and some of the best contemporary commencement addresses given in the US in recent years. Many of these speeches were written in reaction to events, and most of them called on their respective audiences to do something (be calm, have fortitude, ensure victory, reach for success). Whether or not the words we read actually shaped (or changed) history can be debated, but the more important question is whether words can shape conscience, which affects not just one action but a lifetime of actions. This is something teachers have long relied on the power of literature to do.

In the late 1890s, American high school English curricula regularly listed works by Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alexander Pope, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, Daniel Webster, John Milton, William Bryant and Geoffrey Chaucer. Such authors were not just for those headed off to college. Students destined for workrooms—such as those who attended a manual training high school in Denver, Colorado—were still tasked with a similar English curriculum.

And yet, as an educator recently told me, referring to new standards that stress the importance of nonfiction and autobiography, “The trend right now is a movement away from literature,” and it begins in middle school. Imagine your children gradually being fed a leaner and leaner diet of literature beginning in sixth grade. They are done with Beverly Clearly and Ramona. They devoured The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, then maybe they plowed through a few Kate DiCamillo books, ticked through Roald Dahl and topped it off with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Layer on a handful of modern literary choices or a Newbery Award winner or two and it’s off to high school. What happens to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Odysseyand The Iliad, The Wizard of Oz, Little Women, Call of the Wild, and (at least) a hundred others?

There are, however, forces opposed to this movement, especially the move away from exposing kids to challenging literature. Writer David Denby spent time at three high schools (two in New York, one in Connecticut), where teachers are trying to figure out how to successfully (continue to) teach challenging literature to the current generation. The teachers describe reaching today’s teens with literature as a tough assignment. As Denby, who spent time studying alongside classes of tenth and eleventh graders, says in his new book, Lit Up:

When they were very young, teens may have read Harry Potter and later they may have read dystopian and science fiction novels, vampire romance, graphic novels (some very good), young adult fiction (ditto), convulsively exciting street lit. By the time they are fifteen or sixteen, however, reading anything more demanding and time consuming threatens to cut off their smartphone sense of being in touch with everyone and everything at once. . . As they get older, many don’t see why reading seriously should be important at all.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Andrew Simmons, a teacher of 10th and 11th grade English, notes that teenagers today, who are “inundated with video games, movies, and memes” can “often seem hard to shake up” with literature. He argues for more focus on students’ emotional responses to literature:

Characters are fictitious abstractions, and, without actors to bring them to life and makeup and digital tricks to make the drama feel real, students may strictly do the analytical work teachers expect without the interference of a significant emotional response.

“Othello allows my class to review high-school courtship patterns and the insecurities on which they thrive,” Simmons says. “There’s a pretty clear line to draw between Lord of the Flies and the boorish pack mentality of teenage boys.”

If schools back off from literature, they back off from philosophy; they remove the opportunity for students to be lit up (as Denby titled his book) by the ideas of life. “If you don’t read books, and if you don’t get consumed by the physical and moral life of men and women in fiction and history, too many facets of yourself may never come into being,” Denby writes. “That kind of reading is a special good.”

In a single academic year, the 10th grade English class at Manhattan’s Beacon School, where Denby visited, read Rousseau, Falkner, Hesse, Frankel, and Hawthorne. The point of reading these books was not just to cross another name off their author bucket lists. Denby watched the students wrestle with these books to consider “the problem of authority,” the individual and his or her relationship to society, sin and judgment, the challenges of modernity and its technologies, and so much more. As Denby’s book shows, and as our best teachers know, literature isn’t merely a school requirement or a list of recommended books. Great literature teaches us how to live better lives. And those are lessons we carry with us long after we’ve left school.

The Virtues of Book Ownership

By Stephanie Cohen
This article first appeared at Acculturated.com.

“Can you spare a dollar so I can buy this book?”

I heard a man’s deep voice ask this question as I raced up a flight of stairs, speeding my way to the second floor of the local public library to drop off some overdue books. His voice was coming from the library’s “sale room” on the first floor—a room that is little more than a closet but where you can score decent books and classics for a dollar or 50 cents.

I couldn’t hear the response of the person he was talking to, but his question bounced around in my head for the rest of the day. I wondered if the individual from whom he’d asked for the loan might have asked why anyone would need to borrow money to buy a book when they were standing inside a library—where any book can be borrowed for free. Then I wondered which book he wanted to buy, and why, because some books are indeed meant to be held onto for longer than standard loan times, even forever.

There are some books (ok, more like many books, especially in my house) that need to be owned outright. They need to be there on a shelf or in a pile, ready to be pulled out at just the right moment when you need the book (or when you don’t know you need the book until you start reading it again); you even need some of the books you’ve already read, because their presence can rekindle thoughts that were sparked by an earlier reading.

Ownership has always been about more than having the means to purchase a book—though as the man in the library illustrated, the means is necessary to kick off the process. Mortimer Adler, the founder of the Great Books program, explained in the 1940s exactly how you should go about reading a book and had this to say about book ownership:

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture. When you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it—which comes to the same thing—is by writing in it.

The provenance of books—a record of ownership of a particular book through the course of time—can be found in antique books by studying bookplates and stamps placed on pages by one-time owners. The British National Archives recently highlighted some of the amazing antique books in its collection and the trail of owners each book passed between and how they establish this record of ownership.

Ownership today can be tracked more often by scribbles and doodles and less by the elaborate bookplates of barons and earls. I pity the person who one day winds up with copies of some of my books—I am a notes-in-the-margins lady, filling books with arrows, brackets, asterisks, underlining, question marks, and exclamation points. These notes are the heavy traffic of my wrestling with ideas; the library would not abide this.

I asked one of my young sons why we should keep our family books instead of selling them. He explained it this way: “The oldest person in a family needs to pass down the books to the youngest person. Then they pass it down to their youngest kid.” If the process gets repeated again and again, a family achieves the goal of successively (and successfully) educating each new generation.

In a recent Financial Times article on book collecting, city editor Jonathan Guthrie, who purchases old books, maintains that the words are merely one part of a book’s allure. “Words are just one element of a book and not always the best part. Books as physical objects have a charm that also comes from typography, illustration, format and back-story. That is why collecting books can be such a deep source of pleasure,” Guthrie writes.  But in an age when Marie Kondo’s best-selling book on the Japanese art of tidying up and getting rid of clutter is a staple in conversations, I fear book piles may be an obvious target for many families.

Last week, I let my daughter cut school so she could join me on what has become an annual pilgrimage to buy more books. Every year, a massive annual used book sale is held in Princeton, NJ. Typically there are between 85,000 and 125,000 books for sale over numerous days, most for less than $3. It is book lover nirvana. For two and half hours my daughter and I sat on the floor digging through books, creating “maybe” piles and “definite” piles, books for ourselves and books for other members (and friends) of the family. These books will line our walls with our aspirations—what we aspire to read, what we aspire to know, who we aspire to become through what we know. The books we own may embody the person we want to be. Even unread, they tell a story about us.

As we approached midday, we unfolded ourselves from beneath the tables and picked ourselves up off the floor. We dragged our numerous bags to the checkout line and paid the bill that made us owners of these 162 books. I didn’t need to ask anyone to loan me a dollar that day, but if I had come up a dollar short, I would have asked another fellow book buyer to spot me, believing the need to own that particular book would be understood and graciously aided among the community of readers.

Why Even The Youngest Students Should Read Shakespeare

This article first appeared at Acculturated.com  on Sept 14.

The week before school began, my daughter and I swung by her school to drop off last minute paperwork and dropped in to check out her classroom.

We met her teacher and quickly ended up talking about one of my daughter’s favorite topics—reading—and the event she has been looking forward to for years: the 5th grade Shakespeare unit and the play her class will perform.

Her teacher let us in on this year’s selection: Romeo and Juliet. While my daughter groaned (loudly) at the romance-laden selection, I was elated that she would spend a core part of her year immersed in Shakespeare. “I was hoping for something with more dramatic deaths!” my daughter said. Too bad they didn’t choose Henry V.

Youthful passions aside, Romeo and Juliet is a study of family, friendship, the power of chance, and pain, choices, and consequences; it examines the offspring of vengeance and hate, the burden of secrets, the excitement of the unknown, the tug and pull of one generation (and its rules and hopes) over another, the introduction of the mysteries of the heart as an organ of the human body, and so much more.

However far her class delves into the Montagues and Capulets, peeling apart the layers of the Shakespearean onion is a learning experience of great depth and reward. I don’t know if my daughter will leave the Shakespeare experience believing in true love or being a disciple of destiny but she will have had these words and so many more beautiful ideas pass before her eyes, which alone is worth the experience. If even a sliver of the ideas she confronts in Shakespeare stay with her she will benefit.

As our kids head back to school after a summer of pleasurable reading (mixed with a small amount of school assigned picks), they will confront the perennial conundrum of the schoolhouse: the push to read deeply and the push to read for skill face a fierce battle for precious scheduling time. While reading skills are vitally necessary in the earliest years, reading books and plays of serious depth are equally important. Authors like Shakespeare offer teachers and students a periscope into deep human truths.

A recent story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette profiled Becka Nazario Wright, a teacher who suggested introducing second-graders to Macbeth. The school’s director thought it might be too bloody. But as Wright pointed out, even young students recognize that, “Macbeth is a bully, ambitious and kind of a coward. They are really good stories, and it’s the human condition.” To Wright, Shakespeare is relevant even to the youngest of students:

While discussing the ambition that drove Macbeth to kill Duncan so he could become king, Ms. Wright asks the children this question: “Have you ever really wanted something and you would do anything to get it?”

Leon Kass, a retired University of Chicago professor who taught the humanities for decades alongside his wife Amy Kass, spoke in a 2014 interview of the vital importance of doing what Wright seeks to do: introducing great (and often hard and complicated) books to students and asking difficult questions about them. “You’re far better off giving people books to read, which even if they get very little out of it the first time, it will be part of their experience. . . . far better to teach better books than lesser books, books in which you have a reason to believe that the author saw and still sees farther than you would ever see left to your own devices,” Kass said.

The fifth grader who explores Shakespeare for the first time may return to it in high school or college and dive a little deeper into the text, wrestle with it a little bit more, fly with it a little bit higher, and come away with a different level of understanding.

Of course, the books and plays are only half of the equation. Schools also need great teachers who can ask the vital questions and illuminate the ideas floating beneath the text—questions that even young children can consider. Kass observed that even teachers who teach their students The Odyssey “never will ask the question of the class, ‘Why does Odysseus want to go home, and what is home, anyhow? . . . What makes a home a home?’ Every kid in the room has an opinion about that.”

While my daughter might be too young right now to understand the full impact of Romeo and Juliet’s “star-cross’d lovers,” Shakespeare will be waiting for her when she returns to his work again when she’s older; by then she will no doubt be more interested in what Shakespeare teaches us about love and about how the human heart can grow.

Forget About the Reluctance and Focus on the Reader

This article first appeared in Acculturated in June 2015.

By Stephanie Cohen

Stand around with any group of moms of elementary school-aged boys and eventually the words “reluctant” and “reader” will enter the conversation. A recently released local book list for the summer called attention to the fact that it was designed to entice reluctant readers.

The “reluctant” umbrella captures a wide swath of children today, especially boys. If your son is picky (maybe he only wants to read about baseball), or will only read for mandated 15-minute periods ticked off on the kitchen timer and not a second more, or if he dislikes most of the books you bring home, or says the books his teachers assign are boring, someone will eventually suggest that he’s a reluctant reader.

Reluctance, by definition, can mean unwillingness, hesitancy, or disinterest. There is a long bridge between a reader who hesitates or lacks enthusiasm and a reader who is completely unwilling. When they buck a little and resist a book, when they hesitate to pick a book, or seem unable to finish a book that they like, when they drop their book to grab a basketball, we say, “They must be a reluctant reader.”

It’s a label that can apply to any child who doesn’t intrinsically love reading and want to spend hours curled up in a chair surrounded by books. One education book described a reluctant reader as any person between the ages of 12-18, who chooses, for whatever reason, not to read.  If this were a psychiatric disorder, the entire population would receive this label at some point; we’ve all felt reluctance to do something.

Strategies to entice these tentative (especially male) readers abound: let them play Minecraft, then they’ll want to read Minecraft books; let them use the iPad or computer more, then they’ll want to read more afterwards; let them read graphic novels (aka comic books); let their fathers read to them; get them a dog.

Anyone who has spent time around early readers knows that it sometimes takes cajoling, deal making and flat out ordering to get kids to read.

My eight-year old son will only read nonfiction, mostly biographies. This started out as a desire to read about real-life baseball players and then became a literary calling. Biographies of Babe Ruth, the Wright Brothers, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Alexander Graham Bell were all great. Matt Christopher’s fictional books about boys who play sports? Nope. Fictional books about dragons, animals, cars, and aliens? Not a chance.

Yet I would never describe my son as a reluctant reader. Picky? Absolutely. Single-mindedly interested in a certain type of writing that I think should be left for the historians? You betcha.

In the 1970s, academic researchers began asking boys how they felt about reading and their “attitude” toward reading. Their responses would unknowingly lay the groundwork for the now widely-accepted “gender gap” movement that aims to understand why boys say they don’t like to read as much as girls. Educational researchers later argued that boys are different learners, need different stimulation in their school setting compared to girls, and can’t expect to have their attention held by reading a “dense” book. Some of this may be true.

But all of this focus on why boys don’t connect with reading or want to read transformative literature begs the question: Does the reluctance even matter?

“The trouble we have here is not with the boys themselves. The trouble is that we don’t fully understand our boys,” a book on building literacy in boys says. How long are we willing to let a little reluctance prevent boys from eating a healthy and dynamic literary meal?

This year I set out to read a gorgeous illustrated copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer aloud to my three oldest children (between the ages of five and eight). I prepared myself for a little resistance. “The old language is strange, I’m not sure I’m going to like this” my daughter predicted at the very start. “Is this going to be boring?” my son asked.

In chapter two we reached the passage where Tom sees his friend Ben Rogers coming down the street pretending to be a steam ship. The language, the sounds, the awesome illustrations, the pacing of the sentences—it is an utterly flamboyant parody of the things boys do. And suddenly my son is on his back howling with laughter. He can’t stop. “Please read that again, pleassssssseeeeee!”

So I read it again, with even more drama; my son made me reread it each night thereafter before we picked up the narrative again. A few weeks later, when we read the episode where Tom drugs his Aunt’s cat and the cat goes bonkers on two legs, my son started howling all over again.

Mark Twain did this for my son, and he did it by giving him a fabulously real portrayal of what is potentially the most reluctant schoolboy/reader in literary history: Tom Sawyer. Tom’s “mental stomach” never hungers for the prizes that come with academic success and, as Twain writes, “the harder Tom tries to fasten his mind on his book, the more his ideas wander.” But even Tom can be bribed to learn his verses with the promise of a Barlow knife.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that boys are reluctant to read.  It’s that parents need to relax and exercise some patience until their boys stumble across a book that they can’t put down; unlike a few rounds of Minecraft, such well-loved stories will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Ditch the Summer Reading List

This article first appeared in Acculturated in June 2015 and the New York Post June 20, 2015.

By Stephanie Cohen

Writing in 1908, the historian Henry Adams described winter as all about “compulsory learning” and school. Summer, on the other hand, was “tropical license” to do all the things children crave.

Summer, according to Adams, was a time for children to roll in the grass, wade in the brook, swim in the ocean, sail in the bay, fish in a creek, net minnows in the salt-marshes, or explore the pine-woods and the granite quarries, chase muskrats, and hunt snapping-turtles in the swamps.

Today, every June, newspapers, magazines and websites, along with librarians and teachers, post their must-read summer book lists for students—100 must reads, books for introverts, Bill Gates’ summer reading list, a light summer reading list, a counter-cultural book list, or a banned books list—the variations are endless.

From Milwaukee to Miami, reading clubs and contests featuring prizes are kicking off with names like Librarypalooza. Parents head to the library and the bookstore to find a few of the listed items for their sons and daughters, but often their kids don’t care for the books that were picked.

If we take Adam’s notion of “tropical license” as an approach to reading, however, we can create a perfect mingling of that summer rush of freedom and book time.

Tropical license means throwing the bookshelves wide open and letting children dive into piles and piles of books, some of which they may love, hate, not finish, or never forget; others will make them burst into spontaneous laughter or tears, or encourage them to become deep sea divers or zoologists. The summer season takes care of the “tropical” part. But parents need to give their kids the “license” to explore.

This means not picking three new books off a list that some literary critic or publisher or school thinks is a great summer read, and instead figuring out what your kid thinks is a great summer read. Our public library lets each kid in a household check out up to 50 books at a time. Stack 50 books up and you have a tower of reading possibilities and interests.  Better yet, make a giant box of books for them that promises some surprises but also some predictable choices (another 39 Clues book!).

It means, quite simply, getting to know your child’s reading taste, which in turn will help you get to know your child better. I can tell you my kids’ favorite ice cream flavor, favorite pizza topping, favorite color and favorite sports. Finding out what they love to read requires a similar process of sampling and tasting.

Every summer, I pull cardboard boxes out of our garage—one for each of my children—that I fill up with used and new books. The project is more art than science. Some are books in the kids’ favorite series, while others are books on topics I know they will like. Some are shots in the dark (a book about flags, a book about climbing Mt. Everest, a book about the Great Wall of China, a spoof on The Hobbit). These books come without tests or expectations, without vocabulary lists or comprehension questions. There is no book in the box that they have to read. Their only obligation is to keep trying and sampling new books. Book boxes are less about any one individual book and more about building a home that embraces a culture of reading.

American-born author Mary Elizabeth Victoria Borton de Treviño gave an acceptance speech in New York City in 1966 when her children’s book I, Juan was awarded the Newbery Medal.

The book, which tells the story of a slave of the famous Spanish painter Diego Valazquez, grew out of a story her son told her about the artist. In her speech she beautifully captured what a family reading environment looks like, by offering a view into her own family growing up:

“When Kristin Lavransdatter by Sgrid Undset came out in English, I got hold of the book first. I sat in a corner with that novel and could not do anything but wash and dress mechanically, eat what was put into my hand, sleep reluctantly, and read, for two weeks. Next, my sister seized the book and she was tended, as I had been, and relieved of every household task and duty until, sighing, she turned the last page. Then my mother said, ‘All right girls, take over, it’s my turn.’”

During Henry Adams’s time books were rare and often difficult to find. When you finally had them, they were eagerly “devoured,” much like a meal.

“[A]s far as happiness went, the happiest hours of the boy’s education were passed in summer lying on a musty heap of Congressional Documents in the old farmhouse at Quincy, reading ‘Quentin Durward,’ ‘Ivanhoe,’  and ‘The Talisman,’ and raiding the garden at intervals for peaches and pears. On the whole he learned most then,” Henry Adams wrote, describing his early life in in The Education of Henry Adams.

Here’s a summer reading regime worth trying, one that Adams and Treviño would both approve: Ditch the summer reading list, grab a box, fill it with a pile of books, eliminate all chores and distractions that might interfere, and watch your child devour them like a delicious pile of peaches.

Register for the Lions of Literature Summer Reading and Writing Workshops Today!

Join us this summer as we bring together small groups of rising 4th and 5th grade girls who are passionate about books for weekly discussions and art and writing activities. We will be hosting three classes this summer -- two in July in one in late August-September. You can find out more details here. Become a member of the Lions of the Literary Roundtable! Register today.