Denby Fawcett: We Are Losing The Art of Deep Reading - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

In this era of scrolling and skimming, itʻs difficult to immerse oneself in a book. Calls for censorship don’t help.

What is happening in the world of reading today is disquieting — readers are in the midst of an upheaval with censorship arrows flying at books from every direction.

Another troubling fact is readers — bewitched by multiple platforms — now skim and scroll, bouncing from subject to subject on the internet, rather than immersing themselves in deep reading.

Count me as guilty. I don’t do much deep reading anymore — the slow word-by-word absorption of written text I enjoyed as a child and in early adulthood. I miss the transformative adventure of entering an entirely different world in a book and emerging with a new understanding, a changed perspective and empathy.

The lack of deep reading is worth mourning when even State Librarian Stacey Aldrich is concerned that she does not do enough of it.

“I am reading all day, reading on the internet, but not enough deep reading. To dive into a book, to lose one’s self in a book is healthy for all of us,” she said. 

Aldrich is in charge of the statewide public library system in the islands. She is the former California state librarian and former deputy secretary of the Office of Commonwealth Libraries of Pennsylvania. She is a reader’s reader.

I initially called Aldrich to ask her about critic A.O. Scott’s rambling essay in The New York Times that contends: “We are in the throes of a reading crisis.”

I am not sure we are in a reading crisis, but I like Scott’s take – that there is much happening today to challenge the power, the danger and the life-changing ability of reading books. He examines who is threatened by deep reading and why it is imperative that we never stop doing it.

Books library reading Denby Fawcett column
Many factors prevent people from sitting down to read a good book in the modern world, but it’s imperative that we never stop doing it. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat)

“There is so much to worry about. A quintessentially human activity is being outsourced to machines that don’t care about phonics or politics or beauty or truth,” he wrote. “Our attention spans have been chopped up and commodified, sold off piecemeal to platforms and algorithms. We’re too busy, too lazy, too preoccupied to lose ourselves in books.”

Scott cites the increasing calls for censorship as one of many pieces of evidence we are in a reading crisis.

Conservative book banners on the religious right are demanding that books on gender, race and sexuality be removed from library shelves or kept out of the hands of certain age groups.

One of the craziest examples was the Florida parent who got her children’s school to restrict access to Amanda Gorman’s moving poem “The Hill We Climb,” which Gorman read at the 2020 inauguration of President Joe Biden. The complaining woman incorrectly thought Oprah Winfrey wrote the poem.

At the same time the “sensitivity police” of the liberal left are removing words from books they say promote harmful stereotyping.

In the raunchy hilarious books by the late British author Roald Dahl, characters in the newer editions cannot be called fat or ugly and the words “mother” or “father” are changed to parents. The cloud men in “James and the Giant Peach” are now cloud people. Characters cannot have eyes colored black.

“There is something to offend everyone in the library. I am sure of it.”

State Librarian Stacey Aldrich

I would not even be thinking about the censorship of children’s books except my friend Dina Jardine gave my grandson Miles a collection of Roald Dahl books. After presenting the books, Dina assured me that the collection was not the sanitized version but the original, unexpurgated Roald Dahl text.

“While right and left are hardly equivalent in their stated motivations, they share the assumption that it’s important to protect vulnerable readers from reading the wrong things. Including, in one Utah county, the Bible, which was taken from schoolroom shelves, like so many other books, as a result of a parental complaint — one apparently intended to expose the absurdity of such bans in the first place,“ writes A.O. Scott.

Aldrich says censorship requests have increased this year with patrons asking for the removal of three different titles:

— “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human” by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan

Hawaii state Rep. Diamond Garcia, a Republican who represents Kapolei and Ewa, threatened to sue Aldrich if “Let’s Talk About It” was not removed from state library shelves. Garcia called the book “cartoon pornography.” Aldrich counters: “We don’t have pornography in the library.”

— “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe. Moms for Liberty has put on its banned list this author’s journey of discovery to find herself outside the gender binary.

“Moms for Liberty is a national political group with a chapter in Honolulu that wants to restrict a long list of books and stop teachers from discussing race and gender diversity in their classrooms.

— “Call Me Max” by Kyle Lukoff, a book about a transgender boy’s first days in elementary school.

Anyone who wants a book removed from a public library in Hawaii has the opportunity to make their case by filling out a “patron request for reevaluation of library materials” sent to the state librarian’s office. A team of professional librarians then meets to review the request before giving its recommendation to the state librarian who makes a final decision.

Aldrich says Hawaii’s process is aimed at making sure that not a single person but rather a group of professional librarians recommends what goes and what stays in library collections.

This is different than some counties on the mainland where a single person has the power to force a decision on the removal or restriction of a book.

The state's main library is in downtown Honolulu. (Courtesy: Hawaii Public Library System)
The state’s main library is in downtown Honolulu. (Courtesy: Hawaii Public Library System)

Interestingly, the Hawaii library system decided to retain all three of the titles the critics wanted removed, saying the books met the criteria of the state’s collection development policy.

Aldrich says in the eight years she has been here there was only one other request for the removal of a book. It was a children’s book called “Good Morning, City” by Pat Kiernan.

The petitioner was concerned that the book’s drawings of kids with their pet animals in their bedrooms and bathrooms might be promoting physically unsafe situations for children.     

Aldrich says Hawaii’s library system with its 51 branches and more than 3 million items can’t properly serve the needs of the public if just one patron can determine what’s in the collection.

“There is something to offend everyone in the library. I am sure of it,” she says.

People can choose what they want to read. If they think a book is offensive, they don’t have to read it.

As for the publishers’ rewriting of texts of classic books to meet modern sensitivity demands, Aldrich says that’s a complicated topic.

“On one hand if publishers want authors to remain relevant, they need to update language. As I understand it, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” had changes made many years ago because the original works had African pygmies as the Oompa Loompas, so they altered the language,” she says. “On the other hand, I think the language in fiction tells us the story of our past histories.”

I agree with Aldrich that readers should have access to both the newer and older versions of a work. If changes have been made in a newer version, there should be a written explanation of why.

“History is important,” says Aldrich.

Reading might not be in the throes of a crisis, but it definitely has become more complicated. Just thinking about that makes me wish for the discipline to once again escape to the adventure of deep reading a challenging book.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

We're so lucky to have her as our state librarian

wilson.aliado · 2 months ago

Actually, lack of deep reading is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. In our time-pressed, efficiency-obsessed neo-capitalist society we hardly take real time for anything. When is the last time you had a deep conversation with someone? When is the last time you fully immersed yourself in listening to a piece of music rather than listening to it while driving or washing the dishes?

Chillax · 2 months ago

The state library system is a valuable public good and one of the bright spots in this state. It also is very well-run.The lack of deep reading—or any reading at all—is probably closely related to the lack of critical thought that has got us in our current mess. That some would like to impose their views on the rest of society through censorship shows narrow- mindedness and a dogmatic attitude.

Chillax · 2 months ago

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