Arts and Culture

Joy of books celebrated for National Jewish Book Month in November

Many parents savor memories of cozy nights reading to their young children, looking at beautiful illustrations, and appreciating the cadence of a story told well. Those moments connect children not only to their parents, but also to a love of reading so vital to literate, inquisitive young minds.

The explosion of smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iPods, email, texting, and screens – now installed in cars, cabs, elevators, grocery stores, lobbies, and malls – is changing the way our children spend their time. Bombarded with appealing choices, many are typing texts while watching YouTube and then checking their Facebook pages. How many are choosing to linger over the pages of a book?

For November’s National Jewish Book Month, it is a wonderful time to reflect with our families about how books can add so much to our creative and intellectual lives.

A 2007 seminal National Endowment for the Arts study, “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence,” found that:

* Fewer than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20-year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.

* On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time reading.

The study also warns that a disconnect from books often leads to a disconnect from culture:

* Literary readers are more likely than non-readers to engage in positive civic and individual activities – such as volunteering, attending sports or cultural events, and exercising.

A decline in reading for pleasure also takes its toll on critical and imaginative thinking, says Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center in Los Angeles.  In a study she authored last year for the journal, Science, she wrote:

“Studies show that reading develops imagination, induction, reflection and critical thinking, as well as vocabulary.  Reading for pleasure is the key to developing these skills. Students today have more visual literacy and less print literacy. Many students do not read for pleasure and have not for decades.”

This is worrisome for those who care deeply about books and the preservation of quality reading time. The good news is that a growing literacy endeavor in the Jewish world, The PJ Library, is making inroads throughout North America and Israel– including Tuscon.

Harold Grinspoon, a successful 82-year-old real estate developer who grew up with dyslexia and struggled to read, was inspired by Dolly Parton’s literacy program, Imagination Library, which gives books to impoverished children in the US. The well-known Jewish philanthropist had a similar vision for Jewish families and wanted to connect them to their heritage by helping them spend “PJ” ( pajama) time with their children each night  — complete with gorgeous picture books that cleverly articulate Jewish culture, customs, and values.

By partnering with donors and Jewish organizations such as Federations and Jewish Community Centers, Grinspoon began by sending out 200 free books to families each month in 2005. Now, PJ Library books are going into more than 200,000 homes in North America and Israel each month – including Tuscon. It’s enough to make book enthusiasts believe that reading may have a second chance at life!

Technology is here to stay. We embrace it on many levels, seeing the great advances it’s brought to our work and social culture. But let’s not lose sight of the treasure of books and the extraordinary value of parents and children reading together.  We encourage you to check out The PJ Library program and other reading incentive efforts that can be meaningful in your child’s life. Our children are individuals, not statistics, and we can choose to put good literature in front of them as often as possible, enjoying their company around wonderful stories that build memories for a lifetime.

[Marcie Greenfield Simons is director of the PJ Library/ Visit for more information.]