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The literary dinosaur: Endangered or extinct?

I am an insatiable reader. Growing up in the cornfields of Ohio, my playmates included an irascible Shetland pony, a TV-watching duck, an Irish setter and numerous feral barn cats. I was an only child with few neighbors my age. Miles from a library and sans cable, I turned to my Grandma Opie’s bookshelves for entertainment. “Little Women,” “Hamlet” and “Moby Dick” introduced me to strange worlds and fascinating people beyond my don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it farm town.

The older I get, however, the fewer readers I meet. Sure, there’s that well-oiled vacationer on the next towel over with a thriller propped on his chest; the businesswoman flying cross-country with a paperback in her briefcase; and the dad with a novel handy in case soccer practice goes over. Regardless, in the days of electronics and overscheduled families, how many would rather read a chapter of “The Scarlet Letter” than check their e-mail?

Young readers, in particular, appear to be in the minority. This is the age of technology. Why pick up a book when information about anything is at our fingertips• Children can pop onto a search engine and find factual, or not so factual, tidbits about sex, car bombings, flatulence or the drug of choice. Kids use computers for research or chatting with friends or broadcasting their lives. Time once spent reading books is now often spent surfing.

Knowledge is power, and it should be gleaned from many sources. In our family, books take the biggest piece of the pie.

Reading doesn’t replace experience, but, frankly, books prepared me for life. Being isolated from social interaction at an early age could have left me ill-prepared to deal with the trials and tribulations to come. If it weren’t for Judy Blume, I wouldn’t have survived. I did have my share of unpleasant encounters with nasty girls (possibly envious because I had a chest) and hormone-raging boys (the chest was mine and untouchable). I was raised by a single parent. I was not the most attractive child in the ‘hood. Still, “Blubber” saved me from being a psychologist’s future dream job.

Maybe I’m a bookworm with rose-colored bifocals. As a parent of two pre-teen girls — who will undoubtedly have their own share of girlfriends, boyfriends, family troubles and physical insecurities — I am thrilled to have raised readers. It’s like having the equivalent of a parental vitamin supplement.

When one of my little darlings comes home in tears because someone made fun of the space between her teeth, I’ll simply ask her what Harry Potter would do. My daughter can’t whip out a wand and turn little Felicia into a toad for calling her names. As far as I know, our family does not have magical powers — although my husband is convinced I have superhuman hearing. Regardless, I know that Harry’s strength of character made an impression on my children. They’ll know how to handle future bullying with aplomb, even without a spell.

Books cannot take the place of proper parenting. Raising a reader is, however, an ace up a parent’s sleeve. To teach the values of hard work, honesty and fairness, I’ll reach for a title to match the occasion. Usually, a book does a better job of getting across a point than I do, and is generally more reliable than gossip from a child’s overly mature little friend on the school bus.

Many present-day authors hit youth angst square upside the head. If my daughters gain some virtual life experience from a book, I’m all for it. When it comes to difficult choices, my girls will be somewhat prepared. After all, they’ve made those same choices vicariously through hundreds of characters over the years.

I’d be lying if I said I only read mainstream literature in my youth. I doubt Grandma Opie ever realized how much of an education I got from sneak-reading some of her Harlequin romances. A parent must monitor a child’s reading material. Still, I feel the benefits of raising a reader far outweigh the negatives. I’d rather my child be impacted by a noble fictional character than many of the in-and-out-of-rehab celebrity role models of today.

We would be doing the next generation a disservice by not encouraging a love of books. Readers are great learners. Learners are great leaders. You do the math. It’s never too late to coax the literary dinosaur out of extinction. Just take it one page at a time.

Brenda Haas is a freelance writer from Level Green.


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