Featherstone: Let's keep New York a city of readers

Book

Book (Credit: (iStock))

'Of course, it's totally not an apology." A muscular personal trainer at the gym is explaining Plato's "Apology" to a man pumping iron. The client, sweating heavily, attends closely to this spontaneous lecture on ancient Greek philosophy.

Such moments aren't unusual in our city of readers.

Just look around you on the subway. We're reading the Bible, "Harry Potter," "Fifty Shades of Grey," The New Yorker and, of course, this newspaper. We buy used books on the street. Some of our neighborhoods still sustain independent bookstores, which, on any given evening, host literary events. Last night alone, novelist Jonathan Lethem had a reading in Fort Greene while, three subway stops away, a panel of feminist writers discussed early 20th-century memoirist Mary MacLane in Cobble Hill.

But where will our next literary generation come from? Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced at the end of last month that the city was recommending new textbooks to bring schools in line with the national Common Core standards. Many educators have interpreted these standards to mean that children should read significantly less fiction and more "informational text" -- and worry this will make reading less fun.

The Common Core is only one of the impending threats to kids' reading pleasure. An even more serious one is budgetary. The New York Times reported in 2011 that, in violation of state law, half of the city's high schools didn't have a librarian on staff. With coming budget cuts in Albany, the assault on reading may get worse.

As it is, some teachers scramble to pay for classroom books out of their own pockets. In December, one seventh-grade teacher from Park Slope had his students vote on their favorite authors, and raised money on the DonorsChoose website to buy books by the winners -- Walter Dean Myers, S.E. Hinton -- for the classroom.

It's nice that donors rose to the occasion, but our teachers shouldn't have to engage in technological panhandling. The "Apology" is Plato's rendition of the last words of Socrates, a philosopher sentenced to death for "corrupting the youth" with his ideas. Sadly, most of our young people are in no danger of being corrupted by philosophy. But we can still hope that one day they'll discuss their favorite books at the gym.

Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill.

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