In praise of reading

June 16, 2010, 1:23 PM UTC

Amid all the talk about the “death of print” and the ill effects of multitasking and our shrinking attention spans, we have overlooked the fundamental truth that storytelling will never die.

There’s so much jawboning lately about e-readers and tablets and e-ink and pay walls. The debate rages. Will Apple’s (AAPL) iPad flatten everyone else? Is Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle franchise fading? What about Sony (SNE) and Barnes & Noble (BN)? And is it a good thing that News Corp. (NWS) is investing in methods to collect money for customers who want to read its articles online?

The march of progress is wonderful. But I’d like pause today to remember what all the fuss is about in the first place, namely reading. What’s important isn’t form factors and price points and battery life. What matters is the act of reading. The pure joy that comes from consuming a well-told story, from being informed and entertained, sucked in and squeezed emotionally dry, made better and wiser and more mature. Reading is at the root of what David Brooks of The New York Times tried to communicate in a recent column about humanities studies: “No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose).”

We’re so consumed these days with the “death of print” and the ill effects of multitasking and our shrinking attention spans that we forget a fundamental truth: Storytelling will never die. It’s been around since cave dwellers doodled on the walls of their homes, and it will survive after the blueprint for binding books is lost.

My mom, Marcia, loved to read. She shared her love with my sisters and me. She taught us to honor books. To leave a book open face down was a no-no around our house because it might break the spine. She loved to buy books, including books she didn’t need and might not realistically ever get around to reading — an attribute I inherited as if it were the color of my eyes rather than a fondness for printed matter.

Today is my mother’s birthday, and I think it gave her no small amount of joy to be born on Bloomsday, the fictional date of all the action in James Joyce’s monumental novel Ulysses. Had my mom, a voracious reader, still been alive when the Kindle came around in late 2007, I have no doubt she would have scoffed at the idea of reading an electronic book. Yet by now I know she’d be downloading more books than she could get to. She would have gotten as much joy from watching the books pop onto her e-device as she did browsing for used books at the Brandeis book fair in suburban Chicago in my youth (I remember taking home books by the bagful) and later on

Books, the physical kind, may be on their way to becoming passé among the moneyed elites. But in most of the rest of the world, access to books and having a safe place to read them remains as elusive as it was when Andrew Carnegie built libraries to further the cause of democracy.

This all got me thinking about a way to honor the memory of my mother and her love of reading. She would have wanted to encourage others to read. That led me to Room to Read, a San Francisco non-profit started by former Microsoft (MSFT) executive John Wood. Room to Read builds libraries and publishes books in local languages in nine countries where the need is great: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Zambia, and South Africa. The libraries target education for girls, and donors can choose on the outfit’s website from a variety of programs, from just a few dollars to buy books, to $4,000 to  fund a library. To date, Room to Read has built 10,000 libraries (more than Carnegie), funded 1,128 schools and provided scholarships for 10,000 girls. Real metrics on the educational impact of the money spent will take time, but the intangible value of giving the gift of reading is impossible to deny.

I’m certain my mom would have gotten a kick out of Room to Read, but she would have been curious to know what other philanthropies are taking different approaches to encourage reading and in places other than these nine countries. So am I. Please send me your suggestions, and I just might start an annual tradition of shining a light on those who are shining the light of reading where it’s most needed.

On June 16 every year James Joyce fans gather around the world to read Ulysses out loud. I love that. Today I’m happy — and thankful — to praise those who are trying to help who are just beginning their journey of reading. And the woman who started me on mine.