[7-10 minute read]
As a child, I was a voracious reader. Scholastic Book Fairs were the best part of the elementary school fall season; no questions asked. J.K. Rowling was still publishing book after book in the Harry Potter series, The Reading Rainbow featured heavily as parent-approved public broadcast television, and I distinctly remember the pride I felt after making my way through my dad’s airport paperback copy of John Grisham’s The Client. Did I understand the novel? Not entirely, but I did read every single word, which seemed like accomplishment enough.
Every time our elementary class visited the library, my teacher would remind me – not without a touch of frustration – that I was only allowed to check out a certain number of books, and to try reading at my own grade level. I may have been drastically reducing the quality of my eyesight, but at least I was tearing through the Encyclopedia Brown and Cam Jansen mystery series, reading all about Laura Ingalls in her family’s house on the prairie, and sneaking Goosebumps chapter books home under my mother’s disapproving eye.
Although my early years were filled with reading logs, literacy tests, and all the early standardized testing expected of a public magnet school, not once did I consider sitting down to count how many books I had read (and then probably reread) for the sake of enjoyment.
In the summer of 2016, I took a moment to sit back and marvel over the amount of textual material I had encountered throughout my graduate school career. I was nearing the end of reading my way through my Qualifying Exam lists, having read an acceptable amount of Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, Barrett Browning, and Rossetti, to name just a few. As opposed to a number of other universities, Syracuse’s English department allows its graduate students to create their own exam lists, with the guidance of several advisors. The aim of this is to read widely in their field, and in order to demonstrate sufficient competence and mastery.
The departmental Graduate Student handbook called for two reading lists, with a maximum of one hundred twenty titles spread out across novels, selections of poetry and nonfiction essays, dramatic manuscripts, and critical monographs. With some creative rearranging and grouping together of texts with similar topics, each of my lists came in just under the limit, at fifty-seven and fifty-six distinct titles.
Many of these texts, I could access for free online, via Project Gutenberg or Google Books; others, I borrowed straight off the shelves in my advisor’s office. Having taken many a nineteenth-century British literature course during my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, I already owned a good number of the more canonical novels, and as a last resort, I could always turn to Amazon, or the University library system.
One semester earlier, while trying to teach my students about the concept of privilege, I was prepared to challenge a lot of ideological assumptions about race, gender, and class. A quick perusal of Youtube resources led to the following video, which I showed at the beginning of class, hoping to prompt discussion:
The process is fairly self-explanatory: a group of people stand on a single horizontal line, side-by-side, while a speaker reads aloud a list of statements. Depending on whether the statement applies to an individual’s life experience, they were to take a step forward, or backwards. As an Asian-American woman, a second-generation immigrant, and the first person in my family to pursue graduate education, I anticipated several, if not many of the statements read aloud in the video. When I teach, I am highly aware of my identity, how I attempt to construct and maintain my teaching persona, and that my students – or their parents – have the means of paying one of the most expensive undergraduate tuitions in the nation.
However, one statement made me pause: “If there were more than fifty books in your house growing up, take a step forward.”
Growing up, Mandarin was the initial language of my household, but as my parents struggled to acclimate to life in the United States, the number of children’s and young adult literature in English began to overtake our bookshelves. Books were routinely gifted and received, and as of last Christmas, that family tradition still exists. It wasn’t as if I was completely unaware of our status as a “middle-class” family, but for the longest time, to me, books were just books. They weren’t Nintendo gaming systems or desktop computers; reading couldn’t really compare to seasonal passes to the closest amusement park, or annual trips to Disney World. Compared to other material goods, books seemed ubiquitous: the bread-and-butter of my daily life.
Accessibility to reading materials is still a topic of public concern, although by all means, it shouldn’t be. Lately, once-trendy e-readers have ostensibly “lost their shine,” but that doesn’t mean libraries are receiving better funding, or that bookstores are seeing better sales. In the fall of 2016, a public outcry against the closure of the last bookstore in the Bronx was enough to delay, but not halt its replacement by a luxury department store. At the present, several locals are hoping to rejuvenate the “book desert” that the borough has become, but capitalism proves to be only one of the major obstacles to ensuring free and open literacy for readers everywhere.