Summer brings reading to mind

This June, the airways are buzzing with summer reading ideas. Despite claims that reading is a dead pastime, a robust reading climate filled with fiction lovers and information seekers looks forward to summer as a time to relax with a pile of good books. Or an electronic device loaded with bits and bytes of good books.

How lucky we moderns are to enjoy books in many formats. As always, summer offers free reads from the library, instant downloads during insomniac wee hours, and the leisurely pursuit of the perfect bookstore purchase.

If we are by nature curious about the world and programmed to enjoy stories, why are we living in an era of declining literacy? Book publishers want short manuscripts, magazines are going bust, library funding is always endangered, bookstores that were thriving 40 years ago have closed their doors. Few people write letters anymore; instead, they text and tweet.

It’s hard to believe we are descended from people who were entertained by monthly lectures and informed by newspaper articles longer than most magazine pieces of today. Nineteenth-century Fredonians turned out every Fourth of July to hear a speech as long as 3,000 words, only to read the speech in the next issue of the Censor.

The big surprise after Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which he delivered in less than five minutes, is that the real orator for the event has been forgotten. Edward who?

Edward Everett, a popular speaker in 1863, orated his two-hour dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery in Gettysburg. It is not surprising that Lincoln’s terse speech survived, as dense with classical structuring and resonant meaning as it is. Even in its brevity, his speech has retained deep significance.

There is something sad, though, about the paring down of Americans’ ability to take in an Edward Everett. One hundred fifty years ago, Americans were accustomed to listening. They were steeped in words: lectures in venues like the Fredonia Academy auditorium, newspapers posted on the sides of buildings, children reciting stories from their McGuffey’s Reader, arithmetic books chock full of farm-oriented word problems, novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not to mention novels rebutting Uncle Tom, essays about it, and decades’ worth of plays generated from it.

What would we learn from a census that tabulated perceptions of our own literacy, as the 1850 census did? Of Chautauqua County’s 50,353 white citizens, only 734 said they couldn’t read or write. Contemporary estimates of American literacy at that time claim a rate of 90 percent.

Chautauqua measures favorably. Anyone who doubts the high literacy of our forebears should read Civil War letters. Southern and Northern soldiers alike authored letters in such volumes that we would not be able to emulate. Even if they couldn’t spell accurately, these soldiers understood how to tell a story. They used poetic techniques like metaphor abundantly, as if likening showers of bullets to a tree shaking off its leaves were second nature.

Fortunately, the anticipated season provides modern avenues into this old-fashioned richness of words, and Chautauqua County’s libraries are pointing the way. In addition to programs and book clubs for adults, every library in the North County has summer youth programs that should leave no room for boredom. The libraries are united around a theme of science exploration under the title “Fizz, Boom, Read.”

Each library provides books and more books, but also its own activities and programs that will offer young people a rich blend of scientific play, experimentation, reading, listening, and interaction. Whether you live in Dunkirk, Fredonia, Silver Creek, Westfield, Stockton, or Cassadaga, your library has created its own unique take on reading for many purposes. Additionally, the libraries in Stockton and Cassadaga continue to offer children a chance to read to Tasha, the libraries’ canine “Reading Buddy.”

What’s not to love?

And who knows? Someday, one of the graduates of Fizz, Boom, Read just might become his or her era’s Edward Everett, speaking volumes to a patient audience in a time that has decided yet again to steep itself in words.

We can take stores and books out of modern life piece by piece, but no trend can erase the urge to hear or read a good story. That will endure.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com