CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After Gregor Samsa woke up on his back and found he was unable to get out of bed in normal human fashion, he and I were shocked at his metamorphosis.
The novella by Franz Kafka is not even among my top 10 favorite books, but I am glad Gregor crawls around in my brain sometimes. He helps me understand allusions to "The Metamorphosis."
If I try to make a list of favorite books, I am always stumped. There are so many. How about "All the King's Men" or "Out of Africa" or "The Waves?" I love all of John Steinbeck's work: fiction, plays and essays. If you pair his "Grapes of Wrath" with Harriette Arnow's "The Dollmaker," you have hours of reading pleasure. You know what it was like to battle starvation during the 1930s and what it was like to battle pressure to conform for some Appalachian children whose families moved to Michigan and Ohio for factory work at the end of World War II, as so many West Virginia families did.
Left to my own devices, I could read forever. This love of reading is palpable for me. But I worry that too many young people see no reason to read -- either with an old-fashioned paper book or a newfangled electronic device. I encounter too many young people who have the ability to read, but don't. They are content looking up snippets of information on their ever-present phones.
Of course, this may sound like someone saying, "Eat your vegetables; they are good for you." But a lifetime of eating vegetables will do the body good. And a lifetime of reading will do the spirit good.
Obviously, readers are better suited to get into colleges and the job market than non-readers. But I am worried that as we find fewer young people reading, we lose many cultural touchstones, too.
For example, if we hear someone say "Brave new world," I want young people to know that Shakespeare first penned the words in "The Tempest." In 1931, Aldous Huxley used the phrase for the title of his novel about a future society. I think people who hear this common phrase can enjoy knowing its full origin.
And with my advocacy of vegetables and books, of course, I want people to read newspapers. I know too many young people who feel no need for this noble form of communication -- the poor person's college. If you read a newspaper, you have a better understanding of people dying in Syria, or you can learn for yourself that there is no "war on coal."
I could warn young people that while they were busy texting to find out where their friends will be in the next five minutes, members of Congress laid on their backs another few million dollars worth of debt. The young can help their own futures if they read and understand what the older generations are doing at their expense. That's the dentured set making them the indentured set.
In recent years, I have read many people discussing the idea of "American exceptionalism." But an article in the Atlantic Monthly last fall ranked us 14th in the world for reading, a slot we share with Poland and Iceland. In that same article, we ranked at 21st in science and 30th for math.
I have praised fiction and the wisdom newspapers provide, and I also escape the cold in winter by curling up with warm volumes of history about the founding of this country, the malevolence of the Nazi regime, or how women pioneers had to bury their babies on the prairie as they clung to the promise of a brighter day in the emerging West.
I also want young people to be informed voters. The Internet is a great place to visit, but just because it appears on the Internet does not mean it is true. We had voters in West Virginia who actually thought U.N. agents would ask for their identification at the polls in November. People who read would never have given this silliness a second thought.