Book Value


Over the past decade, analysts have studied data compiled from more than 40 nations around the world through a program entitled the “International Assessment of Adult Competencies.” By testing hundreds of thousands of subjects, researchers are trying to figure out skill levels in literacy, “numeracy” and technology.

As you would expect, there is a great deal of variation, but one particular finding has been consistent across every border and ethnicity. People who grow up with more books in the home achieve greater academic success in all three metrics. That in itself may not sound surprising, but the effect holds true whether the books are ever opened or not.

It’s also true irrespective of the education level or the socio-economic status of the parents. The only factor that seems to change is the number of books required in order for the phenomenon to occur. It only takes 27 in Turkey, for example, but takes 143 in Great Britain.

The whole thing leaves researchers with a chicken and egg question. Are academic scores higher because the books are present, or are the books present because academic scores are higher?

By the way, if you’re thinking that the transition from print to digital formats will diminish the effect, that does not seem to be the case. Recent data not only shows a continuation of the effect, but also suggests that people with more books are more digitally literate as well.

My own guess is that the books on display make a powerful statement to everyone in the house. It says that books are important, which means that learning, knowledge, artistic expression and narrative are important.

I grew up in a house full of books. Both my parents were readers, and we had bookcases scattered around the house, overflowing with the novels they had acquired and read throughout their lives. Although I didn’t give it a thought at the time, thinking back about my parents’ library, it strikes me that their books were almost entirely works of fiction.

They never explicitly encouraged me to read their books, nor did they discourage me from doing so. I did become a pretty voracious reader at a young age, but I wasn’t very interested in those bookcases. I was fascinated by history, particularly as it related to warfare, and I just couldn’t get enough of it.

It wasn’t that I had anything against fiction. Like most high school kids – at least from my era – I was force-fed some of the great 19th century American novels: Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc. I enjoyed them, to the extent that one can under the circumstances, but it did not ignite any sort of love for that particular art form. That would happen in college.

I suspect that people who love to read novels were, in most cases, inspired by one specific teacher. I started college as a journalism major, but the freshman course that would affect my life the most was a two-part survey of Western literature. It was taught by a professor named Richard Levine.

He taught by asking us questions, but they were not questions about the plots of the stories we were reading. They were questions about human passions and motivations, the essence of what makes us tick. Essentially, he asked us about ourselves.

I have often wondered what made him more effective than other teachers I have had, and I really don’t have an answer. Perhaps he was more intense or dramatic, or simply more knowledgeable. I don’t know, but something clicked. It led me to transfer to a different college, and to switch my major to English lit.

In spite of my newfound appreciation of fiction, I did not have any clear idea of how that would transfer to a career. Maybe I could become a great teacher like Dr. Levine, or write the great American novel. Eventually I found myself in graduate school, where I realized that those outcomes were unlikely to happen, but also that there might be a third option.

I dropped out of school with the intention of going to work in the publishing business. That was easier said than done, but let’s just say it worked out. I worked my way up a few rungs at one of our larger book publishers, then put in 40 mostly prosperous years at my own company. Although I never wrote the great American novel, I did write a lot of other things, and always felt that I was a part of an industry of which I could be proud.

Okay, you get the point. I love books. By now you must be wondering what that’s got to do with the price of school supplies from China, or why I feel compelled to tell you about it. Well, there are a couple of reasons, and they relate back to those bookshelves that filled my childhood home, and what effect they may have had.

The first is the increasingly popular notion that a liberal arts education is a waste of time and money. My interest in books, and subsequent degree in English led directly to a long and rewarding career in business. Yes, publishing is very different now than it was when I broke in, but the fundamentals of running a business remain the same, and ambitious people will still succeed.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. A recent survey of employers conducted by the Association of Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent were more concerned with a job applicant’s thinking and communication skills than what he or she majored in. It also showed that by their mid-50s, liberal arts majors earned more money than those who had studied in professional or pre-professional fields.

The other reason is more personal, and possibly even more important. For those of us who love books, there is something sacred about the works that we refer to as classics, and any attempt to alter them to suit modern tastes is unthinkable.

The most famous such attempt was made in the early 19th century by a brother and sister team named Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler, who published expurgated versions of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. They cut about 10 percent of the text in order to make the plays more “family friendly,” and in some cases even changed critical elements. In Hamlet, for example, Ophelia dies not by suicide but rather by accidental drowning.

Among bibliophiles, the term “Bowdlerization” remains a dirty word to this day.

That is why it was so disturbing when a major publisher recently announced that it would be releasing altered versions of the works of Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Why? Mostly because the descriptions of some characters may be offensive to some people. Instead of “enormously fat,” a character should be described as “enormous,” and so on.

For decades, no book has provoked more argument among educators than Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, mostly because of the author’s use of the so-called “n-word.” I would argue that making a word taboo only makes it more powerful and, moreover, Twain used the word for a reason. Sometimes offensive language is the point.

I don’t think we have any more right to change an author’s words than we would to change Van Gogh’s brush strokes or Rembrandt’s composition. While I agree that it’s important to have books around the house, I also think that it matters what’s in them.

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