WAKE UP, AMERICA! YOUR KIDS ARE READING!
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Lake Worth, Fla.
LAKE WORTH, Fla., June 25, 2003 -- Harry Potter, boy wizard extraordinaire, please meet NBA star-turned-motivational speaker-actor John Salley. For that matter, meet Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan.
Wall Street analysts take note - no, make that "notes," with an "s." The times they are a'changin'. The dumb-and-dumber downing of the American culture has suffered a terrible reverse, a mortal blow. We are becoming less dumb.
In some urban circles and suburban wannabee enclaves, it has been counter-culture chic to play dumb, or be dumb.
But, listen up: kids are lining up at midnight to have their parents shell out $17, $20, or $30 for the latest Harry Potter episode.
For the commentators who fear kids will spend the summer curled up with Harry, away from healthy indoor activities likelistening to them, I suggest they try lifting the new 800-page tome above their heads every 20 minutes or so. It's true that there is a heavy, white, middle class, SUV, soccer mom bias to the lines at Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, or Costco, but that's usually the case with fad buying. That's also true for expensive concert tickets which kids could never afford on their own, for Cuddle Bug, Cabbage Patch and Tickle-Me-Elmo Christmas gifts.
But if "trickle down" economics might not be foolproof, "trickle-up" wisdom is.
Everyne takes a different path to books; consider this one. John Salley was the slick-talking Miami Heat forward when my younger son was of an impressionable age.
My son's reading was limited to school assignments, and not many of those. As a pseudo NBA "bad boy" with a smile, Salley frequently grabbed the microphone away from the announcer after games; he appeared on talk radio, and wrote articles for a local sports page.
My son liked John Salley. He also liked Mitch Richmond, a local kid who starred for the Sacramento Kings and started the "Solid as a Rock" scholarship club for schoolkids who improved their grades.
So, when my kid asked if he could subscribe to Sports Illustrated, I said, "sure."
The next shocker was that he spent his working money on a book. A hard cover book! We overlook the fact that it was a ghost-written biography of rainbow-haired Rodman - heck, the kid was reading!
The Rodman book was followed by bios of Michael Jordan, and humor by Dave Barry and Drew Carey.
Drew Carey? Literature?
Handing me Carey book to read, my son mentioned that the comedian is a former Marine, lost his dad at age eight, and had battled lifelong suicidal fits of depression.
As my teenager, five-varsity-letter athlete discovered in his reading, I learned that on the serious side, John Salley has dedicated his life to helping kids look for positive aspects of their own lives; that pop cult figures can teach lessons to kids, even if the lessons are sanitized by ghostwriters.
I learned that the catalyst for reading - whether Classic Illustrated Comics, Cliff Notes, Drew Carey, Spiderman, or Hustler - is less important than starting the lifelong road of self-education.
A few years later I visited my son in London, where he was spending a semester as a college intern. I expected to hear about Manchester United, local bookmakers, and the best golf courses.
Instead, a somber young man came to my hotel room and told me to sit down; he had something serious to discuss.
Although I was still weary from the trans-Atlantic flight, he definitely caught my attention. I prepared myself for an unexpected wife and child, a major felony conviction, a request for sex-change surgery, or news of a living arrangement with four lesbian students from Sri Lanka.
"Just sit there, and listen to this; this is one of the saddest days of my life," he said softly.
He opened a slim book of poems by British Poet-Laureate Ted Hughes, and started reading. The Sports Illustrated page-turner had been taking courses in poetry and theater, and on that very day, Hughes had died - just as the class was studying his works.
At that moment, I knew that my dad and his two brothers, all of them antiquarian booksellers during their working lives, would be very proud.
The hype over Harry reiterates the essence of my own experience 5 million times. Kids are reading, and reading something most critics feel has literary and moral value. Even the anti-Harry debate sparked by those opposed to the occult and witchcraft provides a subject for real conversations between generations.
Think about it: parent-child conversations can actually move on from the jewels in Britney Spears' navel and American Idol to what the family is reading.
The final proof that Harry Potter is a positive economic, social, and moral catalyst for the United States came Friday afternoon.
I was talking to one of the most successful young corporate CEO's I know. He is part of the "me," and "now," and "have" generation. His favorite comment at (always brief) meetings is: "If you can't tell me the whole situation in 30 seconds, and can't email it in one short paragraph, it can't be important, and I don't want to know."
One of his generosities is handing over the unopened best-sellers, and the business, sales, motivational, and academic business texts given to him as gifts, or purchased online at the spur of the moment to his employees with a "Here, read this - it's supposed to be good."
Although I have never been invited to his home, it is apparently a bastion of modern technology and luxury. Yet, while he is fully computer-literate, he once chuckled that he did not own a printer for his souped-up home computers. "Why? So I can print out long memos? I don't want messages I need to print. Tell me in one line. Get to the point."
This culture of instantaneity is particularly interesting as a political phenomenon. I recall focus groups asking people what made them vote for President Bill Clinton, not just once, but twice? People would say he was very educated, very complete with his answers. In their personal lives they claimed that they want fast food and instant information, but when it came to real life decisions they most respect a Rhodes Scholar who would get up at a town hall meeting and take 15 minutes to comprehensively answer a serious question, for a serious citizen, on a matter important to their life or their nation.
And American children are lining up to read an 800-page book.
Let's try it again: tv-watching, Pepsi-guzzling American kids are opening a brand new, 800-page, hardcover book.
One more time, for the West Coast: many of the same kids who like Sponge Bob Squarepants and RealWorld are reading an 800-page book.
My late grandmother used to call me before school every morning and refer me to an article in the New York Times. Then she would tell me a word, and make me spell it back to her three times. "Use a word three times and you own it for the rest of your life," she would say.
Amazing things can happen when Harry meets Salley, et alia.
Oh, the wealthy CEO?
He was rushing home to get some rest.
"Gotta get up later and get online around 11 p.m. at the bookstore. I promised the kids Harry Potter," he said.
America is alive and well and living at Borders.
American Reporter Correspondent Mark Scheinbaum is chief investment strategist for Kaplan & Co., BSE, NASD, SIPC, a former UPI newsman and political science instructor. He does not own stock in firms he writes about.