The Tale of the Woman Who Had Never Read a Book

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This is the story of a woman who never read a book.

Someone at dinner — Aunt Nancy — said she met the woman on a flight from Phoenix to New York. Nancy sat reading a book. The woman in the seat beside her — young, well dressed, evidently intelligent — confided, in a bemused, regretful sort of way: "I've never read a book." After a moment, she sighed: "Perhaps I should."

Of course, millions of people in the world have never read a book. Millions of people are illiterate — unable to read anything. Still, it came as a shock, flying with the lucky classes at 30,000 feet across twenty-first century America, to hear this strange admission. When Nancy repeated the story to me, I thought the story was funny, but also obscurely dislocating, ominous. I wondered: Is this an individual quirk? Or is it possible that, without our noticing, the previously literate American middle class, which used to be required to slog at least through a little Dickens or Thoreau or even Vonnegut or Morrison in order to get through high school, has deserted books altogether? Or leap-frogged electronically beyond them? We wake up every few months and find ourselves in a weird new world. Do the educated and successful and privileged classes of the information-saturated post-industrial West now consider the reading of books to be something optional and quaint, like candles at dinner — a throwback, arduous and unnecessary, like knowing Latin and Greek (once indispensable among the educated)?

No. Book sales are robust. Look at Barnes and Noble, or

But the woman on the plane was unsettling. I am a book-worshipper, and there seemed a form of sacrilege in her mentioning she had never read a book as if she were telling Nancy that she had never gone scuba-diving or snow-boarding — as if reading books were, you know, a lifestyle, like vegetarianism or Pilates.

Privately, you either consider books to be sacred or you do not. I do. I don't mean all particular books. Not everyone can write books. Too many people write books who should not do so. Many books are junk. Some are evil. I am talking about the idea of books, the magic transmission, which is itself sacred. Language is the profound code and work of creation with which we approach divinity. I realize there are other, newer, superseding codes, but I cling to the traditional mysteries. In the beginning was the word.

Not everyone can write a book but somehow we expect, without quite thinking about it, that everyone should be able to read a book. Maybe that's a smug assumption, like expecting that everyone has a refrigerator. Maybe the assumption is obsolete.

Why had the woman on the plane never read a book?

Because she could not? Some disability? (It did not seem so. Nancy did not ask).

Did the woman mean she reads magazines and newspapers, and the labels on boxes, and traffic signs, but perhaps had been too busy all her life to read a book?

Is it possible that she made it through years of the American education system without being required to read a book?

That is the trend I fear — a society so convenient, or so automated for airheads, that reading books becomes blessedly unnecessary.

A game to play: Suppose the woman on the plane decides she will finally read a book. Which book should that first one be?

A memory returns. The night of Clinton's first inauguration, in January, 1993, I went to dinner in Washington with a group of media types. I sat next to a well known columnist and television talking head whom I have always thought of as the Beaking Bird: With his alert, black-button eyes and his sharp nose, he resembles that toy perpetual-motion bird forever bobbing, like a metronome, on the rim of a glass and dipping its beak, quite pointlessly, in the water.

To make conversation, I asked the Beaking Bird whether he was working on a book.

He answered: "Writing books is a complete waste of time. Why would I do that? Nobody with any brains writes a book."

The Beaking Bird is a curiously genderless man, but I would love to introduce him to the woman on the plane. A woman who has never read a book.... and a man who thinks writing books is a waste of time: They were made for each other.