Mark Franke: Children still do read real books

I was in the checkout line at my local branch library the other day, standing behind several youngsters slowly doing their own checkouts with minimal mother assistance. One librarian caught my eye with an “I’m sorry about this” glance to which I responded, “This makes my day.”

Think about it. Here were about a half dozen elementary-age students checking out books. Not reserving time to use the library’s computers. Not whining impatiently to go home to play Xbox. But checking out books. Lots of them. To read.

Of course this triggered memories from my childhood in the idyllic 1950s. My memory may fail me on this, but I don’t recall a system of branch libraries back then. All we had was the downtown Carnegie library. I don’t think I ever was inside it, as downtown Fort Wayne was visited only rarely on shopping trips.

I loved to read back then, a habit I have never been able to kick. I still read way too much but now forget most of it within moments of finishing the book. Yet I can’t think of any better way to spend my free time.

Back then, prior to the American disease of conspicuous consumption, one could find things to read only by going to a library. No eBooks or Kindles or digital downloads for us hearty souls; we actually read real books printed on paper and bound inside hardback covers. The only issue was to obtain books.

I attended a small Lutheran grade school with a small library populated by books on long term loan from the county library. As hard as it is to comprehend in our brave new woke world, the government used to be friendly to religion back then even to the extent of assisting children in parochial schools.

There were several series of books in our library. One, a series of biographies set apart by its light blue covers, was my favorite. For some obscure reason I best remember a biography of James Oglethorpe and his founding of the colony of Georgia. Another series was entitled “Your Were There” or something similar, putting the reader on scene at important historical events. Most memorable for me was the edition on the battles of Lexington and Concord. Blame these two series for my lifelong fascination with history.

Summers could be a problem as I no longer had access to the school library. Fortunately for me, the public library had a fleet of what were called bookmobiles. These were trucks of sorts which had shelves of books. The bookmobile came to the end of our street once each week. I couldn’t wait. In fact I would sit at the intersection on the designated day waiting. I would also ask to be taken to my grandmother’s house on the day her street got the bookmobile visit. I was not a normal child, but then that admission surprises no one who knows me.

I was really fascinated with the checkout process. Each book had a pocket inside the front cover with a card giving the title and author of the book. The mobile librarian extracted that card and placed it in an offset arrangement with another card which was stamped with the return date. Both cards then were photographed with the patron’s library card by some huge camera contraption to record the book and borrower.

I have one traumatic memory from my bookmobile days. After checking out my armful of books at the front of the vehicle, I stopped on my way to the entry door at the back to look at a book which caught my attention for the first time. The librarian immediately chastised me for pulling the book from the shelf after checking out. My psyche was damaged forever. If I ever become a serial killer, that mean librarian is to blame.

My reading addiction must be inheritable as my pre-teen granddaughter is an avaricious reader just like her grandfather. When she stays overnight with us, we must insist she turn off the light in her bedroom or she would stay up all night reading. Needless to say, I am proud of that girl.

One of the best programs in schools these days is Accelerated Reader. Children are incentivized to read and are rewarded for doing so. The Fort Wayne TinCaps, our minor league team, gives free tickets to schoolchildren who meet reading goals. My congregation’s school gives an award to the child in each grade who reads the most. That certainly meets the definition of healthy competition.

I am willing to stand in line for as long as it takes if a youngster is in front of me checking out real books. It gives me hope for the future. And dare I say it, hope for an educated future.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected]