Do you read a book a week?" a student asked me one day in class, a note of sarcasm colouring his frustration with the course's reading load.
"No," I said, after a suitable pause. "I don't read a book a week. I read four or five books a week."
Usually I would not have responded at all, but I felt that the other students deserved to hear my answer because implicit in his question was a dismissal of the importance of books - not just in my life, but also in the lives of many of his peers.
My teaching career was far advanced before it occurred to me that reading - deep reading - might need any defence. I have always looked upon interacting with the written word as a natural and indispensable part of life that, like breathing, requires no justification. Yet all too often I encounter students who cannot name the last book they read for pleasure; neither, for that matter, can many adults, and I am frequently struck by how many otherwise handsomely appointed homes have no books in sight.
This decline in the frequency and breadth of reading among the general population stems, at least in part, from the dramatic shift in priorities and lifestyles that has occurred since the close of the 19th century, a shift driven by the engines of commerce and technology. The causes are complex, but a few factors seem painfully clear to me.
First, reading requires us to look inward, to examine what we think and to challenge what we believe. Many aspects of contemporary society, however, "discourage interiority", as Sven Birkerts observes in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1995). The endlessly diverting electronic advances of our visual and aural culture - from radio to television, cinema, DVDs, CDs, CD-ROMs, video games and the immense reach and scope of the World Wide Web - have diminished for many people the practice and pleasure of immersing themselves in books.
"If I spend more than an hour surfing on the internet, I find my thinking has changed, and with it, my concentration," says Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010). "The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."
In July, Amazon announced that, for the first time, the sale of digital editions of books had overtaken the sale of hardbacks. But, Carr says, the recent advent of e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad don't guarantee more readers - only different readers.
"To make a book discoverable and searchable online is also to dismember it," says Carr. "The cohesion of its text, the linearity of its argument or narrative as it flows through scores of pages, is sacrificed." It loses what John Updike called its "edges" and dissolves into "the vast, rolling waters" of the net.
Reading requires an inner silence that promotes contemplation and imagination. The flashing images, the cacophony of music and voices, the frenetic sound-bite-length snatches of thinking that electronic media flourish on simply preclude the calm, focused, revelatory process that reading represents. If current trends continue, says George Steiner, the joy that comes from attending to a demanding text, mastering the grammar, memorising and concentrating, "may once more become the practice of an elite, of a mandarinate of silences".
Certainly, a major enemy is the stupefying incursions of television, the internet and texting into the privacy of our homes, our gathering places, even our schools. We all know instinctively that such media should occupy a minor role in our lives, for students and teachers alike; and yet that attitude is hard to find in our wired - and now wireless - age.
Life is short. Time spent filling one's head with increasingly trivialised programming or pointless information is time lost for ever; but more important, lost too is the opportunity to explore the interior and exterior worlds with the kind of depth and breadth that reading allows.
For more and more people, the internet defines their "reality"; it has become the central point of reference from and through which they experience life. Increasingly, people lack the sense of grounding that deep connection to a tangible, real-world location can provide.
In an age of almost unlimited mobility in both the physical and the cyber worlds, "Home" may refer to a page more often than a place. The stable refuge within a set community where the values, traditions and social practices of older generations could be passed on to and modified by younger generations is - pun intended - virtually gone.
There are no such bounds for the world's booming, ubiquitous electronic communities, and thus very little sense of place and its significance. When I announced to someone that I needed to return to Massachusetts for a week to complete a chapter for a new book, she said: "What for? That's why we have the internet. You can do your research that way without the inconvenience or expense of travel."
But it is the inconvenience of getting there that makes the going worthwhile. Life is not found on the bloodless internet. Life is found in the place, among the people. To see something in its context is to see it for what it truly is at a given moment, and books can provide us that context in a way that chimerical, multiple electronic "realities" cannot.
The lure of electronic distractions and the disconnect from life they can impose are only part of the story. The decline in reading is also related to the spirit of the age - riddled as it is with real or imagined anxieties, with local or global threats, with a disquieting present and an uncertain future.
When people are afraid or troubled, they often turn away from the solitude that reading requires and the interiority that it invites. Many tend to look outside themselves for answers, and to distrust what they will discover, what they may be challenged to do, what they may be invited to contemplate, what questions about themselves they may have to answer if they look too closely at their uncharted inner landscape.
The irony in all this is that they are avoiding the very means by which fear is overcome and order restored, and that is by recognising, accepting and learning from the common humanity that unites us and is, not coincidentally, the focus of most great art. We are neither unique nor alone in our struggles and fears, and art can show us the connections between ourselves and others.
Accepting these connections as valid can be problematic. Individuality is valued and leadership often (rightfully) challenged in our culture; reading hundreds of pages written by an author who knows more about a subject than we do requires a kind of letting go, even a submission to the authority of another. This can be anathema in a society so fiercely protective of the independence of the individual and suspicious of compromising it, even imaginatively.
Acknowledging our common humanity can also be difficult if we have been raised in an environment not given to deep thinking. If our daily diet of conversation is limited to empty chatter and a studious repetition of gossip, then we feel uncomfortable with, even threatened by, serious ideas, philosophical ambiguities or complicated concepts that require ancillary information to understand.
"Bookishness has been twisted somehow into freakishness," wrote Norman Cousins, the American academic and journalist: indeed, deeply ingrained in our culture are negative connotations surrounding terms such as "bookworm" or having one's "nose in a book". The implication is that those who read are "lazy, aimless dreamers", says Anna Quindlen in How Reading Changed My Life (1998), "people who need to grow up and come outside to where real life is".
In fact, the opposite may be true. Readers are very much in touch with life, in some cases too much so. By experiencing, even vicariously, another's pain, puzzlement or perspective, we broaden our insight into the human condition and deepen the level at which we think and feel.
We learn what qualities, emotions and desires we share with others who in culture, generation or outlook may seem to be very far from us. We learn about not just what makes humans different, but also what makes them the same.
"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read," wrote novelist James Baldwin. "It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." And such knowledge is essential in developing our potential for relating to others. Through reading we can learn to be members, not just of our own families, but of the family of humankind.
At some point in your life, I tell my students, you will need a "4am book" - just as all of us need a 4am friend, some source of comfort, guidance and stability we can turn to when the dark night of the soul seems too long and deep to bear. It is a book strong enough to help us past what is troubling us.
"You'll never be so unhappy", I say, "that reading will not help you. With book in hand, you are never alone." Then I tell them about one of my 4am books, Henry David Thoreau's life-altering Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (1854) - a book that I have always felt was written especially for me.
I can vividly remember my first encounter with Thoreau. I was in the ninth grade and Mr Trent was my teacher. He assigned the entire book to us, and for each chapter we had to answer a dozen questions. I still have my original copy - covered with my underlinings and annotations - along with my handwritten answers to the questions and the final essay I had to write.
At the time I was carried away by Thoreau's call to simplicity, by his voice of reason and moderation. Here I found an alternative to the unhealthy pressures to conform that preoccupied so many of my peers. Here was a way to retreat into long, uninterrupted stretches of calm, far away from the incessant prattle of the everyday world. Here in the sentences that I underlined, I discovered something deeply personal and transforming and with them, I think, I first began to cull from books what pertains to me.
My reading experience of Walden has deepened with time. Thoreau had taught me how to withdraw into myself, an unassailable place where pettiness grows less insistent and less harsh, away from the unrelenting clamour of daily life.
Perhaps it was inevitable that I would become so deeply connected to the works of New England authors such as Thoreau. Given that I was born and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, and that along with my parents and brother I travelled so often to Salem and Concord, the spectres of Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau loom large in my reading history.
My memory of pilgrimages to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and reading the epitaphs of eminent 19th-century American authors is as fresh in my mind today as it was when I first visited aged 10, and each year when I return to my home town, Author's Ridge is among the first places I visit.
When, in June 2004, the remains of Hawthorne's wife and daughter were moved from Liverpool, England to be reburied beside him in Sleepy Hollow, I felt peculiarly connected to the ceremony that had taken place on the opposite coast from my Southern California home. I said to my summer class that morning: "Well, I am here, but my heart is elsewhere." Such is the personal attachment we can develop for the authors and works we admire.
When a book speaks to us, the message does not go away; instead, it becomes part of us, stays with us over the years, affecting us in ever-changing ways. Like the growth rings of a tree, each book adds more substance, breadth and strength to our experience, and the layers continue to grow and expand for as long as we do.
"Of all the inanimate objects, of all men's creations," says Joseph Conrad in his autobiography, "books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thoughts, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error." Unlike films, TV or computers, books are convenient, durable, portable, self-sufficient; they can be read or carried anywhere; they can be ingested slowly in quiet solitude; they are available to everyone.
How can we support this kind of relationship with books at a time when the reading experience is being assailed from so many sides? I encourage my students to read everywhere - on trains and in cabs, in the back seat of a car or on an aircraft, in queues or in waiting rooms, between classes or into the night - and to welcome the open-ended, unstructured time that school vacations will afford them to read without interruption.
I also affirm in my classes that the partnership between reader and book is a unique and invaluable one, and that no glowing computer or TV screen can replace the fundamental joy of holding a book in one's hands, pushing back its cover and escaping into its pages. I share what the experience of being completely "hooked" by an author's deft touch or intriguing ideas can be like, and I suggest books that will give students an opportunity to feel that themselves.
We can further encourage a new generation of readers by creating a subtext for our classes. We can ask some of the larger questions that our own passion for books addresses: how does reading shape and nourish our inner lives? What motivates us to turn to books in the cyberspace era? What will happen to Americans as a people if we become a nation of non-readers?
By leading our students through the answers to these questions, and many others, we will give to them an alternative voice to the indifferent ones they hear much too often in society.
We all know that a love for books usually starts early in life. If our students come from homes where the predominant sound is the turning of pages, then from our experiences they will hear an affirmation of their own; if, on the other hand, they come from homes in which books are rarely seen, never talked about and seldom read, they may in time feel angry or cheated by their intellectual void. It is our task as educators and adults to provide a model for the reading life and the rewards and insights it can yield.
"Hold on to your books," I say. "They will help you through. Let them be your best friend, and they will remain a solace in your life as they continue to be in mine."