Sunday, July 10, 2005



Perhaps it was having too much time waiting in the -- god help us all -- Reagan National Airport yesterday, but I found myself jabbing at the Washington Post like a bird picking ticks off a rhino. Owners Closing The Book on Libraries in the Home, announced one scare headline. "When people walk into a modern home, they don't ask about a library," explained a researcher from the National Association of Home Builders.

Oh my -- no library. Higgins, fetch me my smelling salts!

How might one turn this minor architectural trend into a societal problem? Hmm. Oh, I know! Just cite.... wait for it... wait for it.... yes, you guessed it!....

In fact, separate space in a house specifically designated for reading "is fast becoming a rarity," said Mark Bauerlein, director of the Office of Research and Analysis of the National Endowment for the Arts, the government agency that last year documented a decline in book reading among Americans in a report titled "Reading At Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America."

That's right. The NEA, which apparently never met a cultural crisis it didn't like, is now worried that our homes lack libraries:

The shift away from home libraries is disconcerting to some, such as Bauerlein of the National Endowment for the Arts. Reading is "a high-concentration activity" that cannot easily take place while multi-tasking or in the presence of rooms with distractions such as e-mail, TV or computer games, he said. In addition, a home library typically houses many books, he said, and "the presence of books in a household has a deep effect on the habits, inclinations and intellectual development of people in that household."

Yes, quite so. There are other shifts from home planning that I too find disconcerting. Why is there no ice-house in my backyard? Where's my carriage house and servants' quarters? And why, pray tell, is my house not equipped with a coal room?

But wait: think of the most well-read person you know. Do they have a library in their house? Or are the books on shelves scattered throughout the dwelling, and perhaps also in a home office equipped with those nefarious telephonic and computing devices? Do they read in bed sometimes, or in front of their computer screen? Are they, perhaps, also fond of reading in one of those newfangled coffeehouses?

One final note. I spent the last couple days in the Houghton Library at Harvard, and then at the Library of Congress reading room and the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC. Each is the epitome of a serious library -- dark wood everywhere, a hushed atmosphere lit by stained glass windows, and little ladders reaching precariously up to ancient leatherbound folios. But, do you know, I saw patrons carrying cell phones and using... computers?

So I guess those aren't real libraries either... right, NEA?

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