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On literature lost

Young boy watching TV circa 1950s

"TV sets were rare and expensive in the '50s. We rented one for the McCarthy hearings, but otherwise, books were the favorite home recreation during winter." Photo: Hulton Archives/Getty Images

When you are 90, you can see your kids go on Social Security. You can watch them enjoy the harvest years if, 50 years earlier, you helped them prepare.

After the retirement dinner and presentation of the gold-plated putter, life needs purpose. Service to others, of course, and service to one’s own needs for nourishment of mind and spirit. The 21st century finds many unprepared. For them, leisure becomes a bore.

My kids enjoyed recreational reading during their teens. TV sets were rare and expensive in the ’50s. We rented one for the McCarthy hearings, but otherwise, books were the favorite home recreation during winter. The library supplied multiple copies of plays by Shakespeare or Shaw for us to read together, each choosing a part in the cast. Friends from school often joined us.

For my children, book reports could be a way to express their understanding and appreciation of literature. Their cultural development was simply the product of circumstances at the time, and not attributable to virtuous elders. Now we live a thousand miles apart but still share the same books.

TV sets were owned by 14 million American families in 1950, 46 million by 1960. There was a corresponding drop in the purchase of literature. Since then the computer and the cell phone have further preempted the leisure time of whole generations. The printed page becomes obsolete in the electronic century.

Technical progress has its consequences. One of these is loss of the cultural enrichment to be enjoyed with books. Many of the generation now retiring will miss the pleasure of mind that comes with sharing with an author the thrill of the narrative and the personal acquaintance with its characters.

Movies and television preempt the visual imagination of the viewer. The movie and TV versions of Treasure Island or Les Misérables bring us John Silver or Inspector Javert as presented by a casting director in Hollywood. The same stories in print invite us to share with the author the creation of the personalities and their responses in crisis. We participate in character development and visualization of the scenes. Reading is a participatory sport.

A friend 40 years my junior had seldom read a book for pleasure. A gift copy of The Scarlet Letter brought him into personal involvement with the trials of Hester. Later, in the The Bridge of San Luis Rey, he shared the fate of Peruvians plunging to their deaths when their bridge collapsed. Recently he remarked that he wants never again to be without a book to read.

Not everybody gets in retirement a vigorous body or a fat purse, but we all get a free library card. It’s never too late to discover the enjoyment to be had with a good book.

Born in Nebraska, Yale Huffman (JD ’60) made his way to Denver via Washingon, D.C., where he worked during the New Deal. He graduated from law school at age 45. He says naming his favorite book is harder than making a will: “Who among your heirs is the favorite? Perhaps the book that first brought me the magic of books—Treasure Island.”

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