#84. Find a hardcover book that is about to be thrown away and very carefully disassemble it

IDEA #84. Find a hardcover book that is about to be thrown away and very carefully disassemble it. Figure out what the physical parts are of a hardcover book; see how the cover is made, and how the pages are held together. Look up “bookbinding” online or in an encyclopedia and learn as much as you can about the process. If you are inspired, try building a blank book of your own, with a beautiful cover, to give to a friend or loved one.

This may seem distinctly sacrilegious to committed bibliophiles, but for a young person with an interest in books this can be a solemn and significant act, like a medical student dissecting a cadaver.

The printed word, they say, is on its way out, and yet physical books persist and multiply. There is something elementally satisfying about handling a book, and for many the feel and smell of a book can be in themselves pleasurable. Young people do not always realize the power of scent, but in later years the smell of an old book that has lain on a dry and dusty limantel booksbrary shelf or that has gently mildewed in a seaside home may bring back rafts of memories. Books as objects are a medium in themselves.

Simple curiosity might motivate the careful deconstruction of a physical text. The act itself might inspire some research as to the parts and terms of the publishing and printing worlds—the meaning of endpapers, half-titles, front and back matter, and signatures. Each book, even a paperback of the meanest sort, has been designed, not only in the cover design, but in the choice of paper, font, illustrations, and textual organization (forewords, acknowledgments, prefaces, bibliographies, notes, afterwords, and so forth). Imagining why the choices were made that resulted in the finished product can also raise questions about the appropriateness of the choices or about the interests and backstories of those who made them.

The deeper structure of the physical book will reveal hidden complexities—stitchings and gluings invisible to the reader. The dissector may be inspired to do some research on the bookbinding process—and all the elements of bookmaking, from papermaking to printing to design and binding, are in themselves highly developed crafts practiced by professionals and amateurs alike. The project might inspire a visit to a printing shop or a bindery, or at least to ask the local library how it prepares and repairs the books in its collection.

The reader comfortably familiar with the nature of a book as a made object will carry with him or her a deepened sense of the significance of text—and this reader will always be one more voice raised in defense of the book against the inroads of whatever technology is next ballyhooed as portending the death of the printed word.

#71. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a magazine about history (past or current) or archaeology

IDEA #71. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a magazine about history (past or current) or archaeology. Old copies of the now-defunct American Heritage would be a natural choice, but there are plenty of current magazines about specific aspects of history—wars, ancient civilizations—that are pretty easy to find.

To whatever degree the past creates the present, a knowledge of the subtleties of history (as opposed to the collection of facts that often passes for history instruction in school) can be helpful in understanding how governments and societies make decisions, or at least how they can arrive at various predicaments. In history the persistence of certain issues and problems is known as continuity, and anyone who pushes their own study of history past the superficial level soon discovers that the problems of socioeconomics, ethnicity, foreign policy, religious conflict, and taxation that vex the world today also vexed the world a century or a millennium (or three) ago.

Magazines of history (as well as documentary programming on television, it must be added, although these are not the focus here for reasons that will appear below) provide multiple windows into small and specific aspects of history—a single person, place, or event, or a specific historical issue or trend. As these magazines are intended to entertain as well as to inform, the writing tends to be a good deal livelier than textbook prose and the overall coverage richer in terms of the inclusion of quotations and, above all, visual material. The best of the history magazines—and the classic American Heritage is the grand-daddy of the genre—solicit articles from the best writers of history and biography, and careful attention to design means that everything about the magazines is attractive and of high quality—so high as to make one wonder whether textbooks need be a dull as they usually are. Smithsonian is a fine example of such a publication.

The argument for going through an entire issue is that the activity will provide first and foremost an idea of the rich menu of material that such periodicals offer and secondly an increased probability of the young reader finding something of real interest; in addition, even the advertisements in such magazines can be fun, offering books, objects, and experiences that may be a bit out of the ordinary.

A couple of hours in front of The History Channel might have some of the same effect as reading a whole magazine, but to be blunt the quality can be uneven and sometimes younger viewers can find themselves watching an infomercial or a program that is distinctly pseudoscientific (aliens and UFOs make regular appearances on several “history” channels) without knowing it. We approve of the concept of the channel but believe it should be watched in at least loosely supervised doses.

Another point in favor of history magazines is that they last in physical form nearly forever, and, along with back issues of those being currently published, there are a number of bygone periodicals with a historical focus—Horizon chief among these—that are worthy of attention even forty years after their first appearance. Horizon, like American Heritage, first appeared in hardbound editions with superlative production values and excellent writing.

#61. Read a number of books by the same author

IDEA #61. Read a number of books by the same author. Start with Mary Pope Osborne or J. K. Rowling or Rick Riordan—or Toni Morrison, Avi, Emily Dickinson, Gary Paulsen, Tamora Pierce, or Shakespeare

The youngster may be a reader and already inclined to inhale the entire oeuvres of many authors, mowing down whole library shelves like an avenging angel of literacy. But if the inclination to read is modest, or if the young reader has difficulty finding books of interest, this activity might be one way to discover a passion.

The hard part, of course, is finding an author enough of whose output is appealing enough to make pleasing the prospect of reading even more. It might be that the work of an author enjoyed while much younger—even the illustrated “read-to” books of early childhood—might serve as a starting point; one thinks of Blueberries for Sal, whose author, Robert McCloskey, wrote and illustrated many books, not all of which are as familiar as Sal or Make Way for Ducklings. Many authors of children’s books have also written for older readers, and so the reader who loved A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle might find a foray into her Crosswicks Journal Trilogy of some interest.

Poetry, because the “units of production” are shorter and less intimidating, might also be worth exploring. Some “children’s poets,” like Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, are quite prolific and endlessly entertaining, while older readers may want to take on the likes of Dickinson or Robert Frost or the very accessible Billy Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate.

Series books are another way into this project, and the literary quality of the works does not have to matter. Any number of accomplished intellects have cut their teeth on the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or the Boxcar Children. We want our children to know that between the covers of books we can find satisfaction and pleasure and examples of people solving problems with optimism and confidence, and series characters do the latter book-in, book-out. Not Shakespeare, perhaps, but entertainment for the mind and medicine for the soul nonetheless.

And here’s the thing: Authors write to be read and enjoyed, and most do not write just so that scholars and schoolchildren can spend endless hours in detailed analysis. The point of this suggestion is not just to develop breadth and skill as a reader but also to sharpen taste—to learn what one likes to read. The focus should be kept on the doing and not on the debriefing.

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