Thursday, May 19, 2011

Nostalgia and Literacy

I watched You’ve Got Mail Wednesday night – for the umpteenth time. This is the 1998 Nora Ephron romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks as rival booksellers who, unbeknownst to them, are also each other’s secret e-mail pal. It’s set in New York City, primarily in my neighborhood, the Upper West Side, and it’s one of my comfort-food movies, the kind I reach for when I want a soothing slice of yesterday after a hard day in the present.

I distinctly remember disliking this movie when I saw it in the theater way back when. I was irritated by how bright and clean Manhattan looked, a far cry from its real-life appearance. And I was bothered by Meg Ryan’s choppy hair and lifeless, colorless wardrobe and her total lack of jewelry. But now, it reminds me of what New York was like even just a few years before 9/11, before we were aware of terrorism and a cloud of suspicion and fear blanketed the city and never left. It was a time – just 13 years ago! – before all sorts of New Media took over our lives, personally and professionally. There was no Facebook or Twitter or texting or e-books. The Internet was AOL and e-mail was the big thing.

The movie is also an unintended harbinger. Hanks is one of the key executives behind a chain of super-bookstores a la Borders and Barnes & Noble, which are pushing out quaint and once-thriving independent bookstores – like the children’s bookstore Ryan owns. So besides the romance, there are vital messages: about the importance of independent bookstores which, like so many Mom & Pop operations, once gave New York its distinctive flavor. At a rally Ryan orchestrates to try to save her store she asks the assembled crowd: “Do you want the West Side to become one long strip-mall? Do you want to get off the train at 72nd Street and not even know you’re in New York?”

Alas, over the past 13 years, New York has become, in great part, one long strip-mall. Chain stores of all kinds have usurped small, privately-owned shops of all kinds, and the façade of the famous West 72nd Street subway has been altered by renovation and expansion. Taxis used to be sedans; now they’re miniature clown-vans. Neighborhood coffee shops used to abound; now it’s all Starbucks all the time. People in Manhattan used to dress up, or dress crazy; now most people look like they just fell out of bed. All that, along with our Mayor’s numerous Nanny-State laws, has made New York as vibrant and exhilarating as Peoria, Illinois. I really miss the New York I was born and raised in, and the Upper West Side I’ve lived in for 34 years.

The film’s other thread of message is about the importance of books in children’s lives. “I realized that it wasn’t just about selling books,” says Ryan of the lessons she learned when she helped her mother (the store’s previous owner) as a child. “She was helping people figure out who they were going to be, because the books you read as a child affect you like no other books…” Embarrassed, she ends her rant.

But my rant is just beginning, because there was a very disturbing story in the Times a couple of days ago, “A Book In Every Home, and Then Some,” which reports that “some 42 percent of American children — more than 31 million — grow up in families that lack the income to cover basic needs like rent, child care, food and transportation. `These are families that are not buying books at retail,’ notes Kyle Zimmer, the co-founder of First Book.” First Book is “a nonprofit organization…which is spearheading a new market mechanism that is delivering millions of new, high quality books to low-income children through thousands of nonprofit organizations and Title I schools.”

I was fortunate to have lots of books as a kid, both those that were given to me and, as I got a little older, the ones I got for myself in school libraries and local public libraries. The article also explains that public libraries in poor neighborhoods are open fewer hours than those in other locales and also have much smaller inventories. School libraries, of course, are as deficient as the schools they’re in.

Books have been a staple throughout my life. My mother, an English Literature major whose great ambition was to teach (but she got stuck in a series of middle management jobs instead) used to read to me often – and not just from children’s books. At the age of seven I could practically recite Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Peacock complete with Irish brogue. Books were everywhere in our home, along with music of all kinds, and my mother would get framed prints of famous paintings from the library to hang on our walls. That foundation absolutely gave me a leg up into adulthood and it's left me with wonderful memories. I don’t suppose libraries lend framed prints anymore…

It’s horrific to imagine 42% of American kids not having even a modest home library. I’m also not particularly happy about the rest of contemporary homes, where in many instances, books are giving way to electronic toys and tools and texting on colorful phones in elementary school. I shudder to think who these people will become when they’re grown, the clean slates they’ll be without the memory of books and language and imagination to fall back on.

By the way, all of the thousands of books used in the production of You’ve Got Mail were provided by numerous publishers, who then allowed them to be donated to a national literacy organization.

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