Back in the 1959, when I was 13, I attended a parochial school in Brooklyn. Because of the Sabbath on Friday, we had an early release from Yeshiva Rabbi David Leibowitz. Most of the students would go to local parks to play basketball or baseball. I always found myself instead in a small public library on Church Avenue, browsing the stacks for hours before sundown, the beginning of the Sabbath.
There was a quiet in that library that I could not quantify, but it led me to worlds that I thought I’d never see. I was introduced to the Green Mountain Boys, to Isaac Asimov robots, to the swashbuckling novels of Thomas B. Costain and to a whole host of adventures of the mind. I found a paradise of silence where I could explore my inner self and find the treasures of other worlds.
When we moved to South Farmingdale a year later, the first thing I did was to seek out the public library for the books and the adventures. I found it in a converted bank on Conklin Street that is now a lovely restaurant. I remember my desire to read “Lolita,” the rather adult Vladimir Nabokov novel, and the look the librarians gave when I brought it up to the circulation desk.
“Are you sure that your mother would approve?” I was asked.
“Sure,” I said with conviction.
The librarian called my home to get permission. I knew my mother would give it because the flights of the mind were her salvation as well, even though she had only an eighth-grade education. I carried that book out of the library proudly. The book became my badge of honor and a signal that I had joined a generation of men who dared to read.
That brings me to the heart of this story. After watching the current generation of teens stuck in the eddying waters of technology, I lent little credence to the survival of the book. I felt sure that the physical object would be a thing of the past which the Twitter world had already overtaken, limiting the imagination of this generation to the few characters that they could consume in the shortest period. I was convinced that tomes, with their thousands of words, would decay into relics.
But on a Saturday in August, I was shocked into the awareness that my fears might be premature.
Stony Brook University hosted the 21st annual Suffolk County Battle of the Books, a competition for teens representing local public libraries. The participation of my granddaughter, Kayla, brought it to my attention.
In the Student Activities Center, hundreds of young people came in character costumes, enthusiastically ready to respond to a multitude of questions about books they had read. They had spent the summer in preparation.
Imagine, an entire summer reading when they could have lazed with their smartphones and tapped their likes and dislikes into Facebook or followed the president into the Twitter universe.
Instead, they followed their imaginations and devoted themselves to the books. Perhaps there is hope for the word.
Reader Sy Roth lives in Mount Sinai.