Lawrence J. DeNardis: Why People Still Read Books
The decline of books in our lives has been predicted for several years because of digitization and changed reading habits. It has been nearly 10 years since Amazon.com Inc. introduced its Kindle e-book reader and challenged the well-developed business models of publishers.
Currently, however, U.S. book publishers have watched e-book sales decline as printed book sales rise. This represents a major reversal for an industry that was facing radical change, if not slow death.
Many people are pleased that printed books will remain a vibrant force, myself included. In fact, books are even more beautiful than ever with more design sensibility going into them, perhaps because it is recognized that they will not simply be throwaways. A good example is the magnificent new book on Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. The cover is a detail of an oil painting in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery that was once thought to be a self-portrait painted by Leonardo. Throughout the book we are treated to stunning reproductions of his great paintings, including, of course, The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, as well as Leonardo’s many drawings and sketches on technical and human subjects. It is a breathtaking “tour through the life and works of one of the most extraordinary human beings of all time...,” David McCullough is quoted as saying on the back cover. This book will always occupy a prominent place in my library at home.
As part of the resurgence of books, in 2017 the Connecticut Center for the Book based at Connecticut Humanities (the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities-NEH) reinstated the Connecticut Book Awards, which had been in hiatus since 2011. It was revived to value the literature that is produced in Connecticut and to recognize and honor books with ties to our state.
CCB had more than 100 books to judge, with the help of several distinguished readers. The winners were Danielle Pierati (poetry), Robert Patton (fiction), Obey Ndibe (non-fiction) and Karen Fortunati (young readers). The titles of their books can be found at ct.centerforthebook.org. The awards ceremony was held on a Sunday afternoon in October at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford. This important event is now back on track for the future and it is planned that books published in 2017 that meet the criteria will be eligible for the next Connecticut Books Awards to be held in October 2018.
Holding the 2017 Awards at the Mark Twain House and Museum was very special for those in attendance. Twain was one of the best and most popular American authors, and is generally considered the greatest humorist in American literature. Born in Missouri near the Mississippi River, he learned to pilot boats and experience life on America’s great river, which would become the source for many of his writings. He has said “in that brief, sharp schooling I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of human nature.”
When he and his wife moved to Hartford in 1871 they built a house to resemble a Mississippi steamboat. It was here that Twain wrote most of his best books despite his busy schedule lecturing and travel. In “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876) Twain describes the adventures of an imaginative boy in a small Missouri town before the Civil War using his own boyhood to create three memorable characters - Tom, Tom’s friend, Huckleberry Finn and the enslaved man, Jim. Those characters would reappear in other novels, most notably “Huckleberry Finn” (1885) considered a masterpiece that dealt with the adventures of the homeless boy Huck and runaway slave, Jim, as they travel down the Mississippi River and engage in real talk resulting in Huck’s growing awareness that Jim is a human being, not a piece of property.
It is through novels and other forms of literature that opportunities are created for people to rediscover the joy of life-long learning, to see themselves in the full context of their history and heritage, and to explore the infinite variety of human thought and experience that gives shape, meaning and direction to life. Books are an indispensable resource for knowledge and human understanding.
Lawrence J. DeNardis is chairman of Connecticut Humanities. He is also a member of the Board of Regents for Connecticut Higher Education, President Emeritus of the University of New Haven and a former U.S. Representative from the 3rd District of Connecticut.