Access to reading: architecture informs literacy

I’ve been thinking recently about the privilege of access — mine in particular. A fact about me that I constantly found surprising growing up is that, generally, I’m significantly more well-read — wider-read — than many people that I’ve met. I’ve always loved to read, but I’ve had the immense luck of getting to know many brilliant people with advanced degrees, often in the arts and humanities, which require lots of reading. And while they’ve all read deeper than I have, I’ve learned by taking those Facebook quizzes about what books you’ve read that I’ve generally read more books that most of my friends.

If I start to pull out differences, a primary difference is that I grew up in a house surrounded by books. We had a bookshelf in nearly every room. Each of my siblings and I had overflowing bookshelves in our rooms. There was a bookshelf in our dining room, piles of books here and there. We had a study, which was an unused bedroom that had 2 walls of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. This room was also where our TV sat — explicitly linking the notion of relaxation and entertainment with reading. Beyond the quantity of books, the breadth of topic was huge. As a kid, I could freely explore the massive set of Taschen art books, London Times archives, Complete works of Dickens, Shakespeare, Life-science books, travel books, novels, poetry, plays, non-fiction of all stripes (I learned early on that I generally dislike autobiographies and memoirs, but got a peculiar satisfaction from biographies that were, if not unkind, not wholly flattering of their subjects).

But I live in a townhouse in central Vancouver. While I’m certainly lucky, when I look around the house, there’s not really any unused walls — where could I put a bookshelf? My living room has 1 wall. We put our couch there. The other side is a fireplace. The third wall is doors & windows. The dining area has a no walls: window one side, staircase across. There’s a bit of wall in the kitchen, so we put a shelving unit there to store things like food — but we did cheat and have a lovely cookbook shelf! And that’s the entire main floor! There’s a half-landing as the stairs turn, but it’s too narrow to put a bookshelf there (I tried — even a basic Ikea shelf means I don’t fit width-wise there).

And then I started to think about places where I have lived vs how many books I had. Unscientifically, the older the place I lived in, the more likely it was to have had wallspace for books. But as modern architecture has trended towards open space, this has removed interior walls that are perfect to hang a bookshelf on. Visiting friends, this is true too: Look at where you live. Was it built in the past 20-odd years? If so, I bet there are very few interior walls — it’s not the style — particularly on the main floor. Even large houses often just have larger open spaces. And this, for literacy, might actually be a problem. Sure, I could put a bookshelf in front of that bay window, but I’m not likely to. My bias is showing, but the surest way for me to fall in love with a house while browsing or watching House Hunters is the presence of built-in-shelving. And yeah, once the interior decorator gets done with them, those shelves are generally filled with trinkets, but all I see is double-stacked books in those shelves.

My oldest kid, luckily, is a good reader. But he still is much more constrained than I was by access to books, because they’re not just there. Discovery is a problem. He’s really good about leveraging his own collection, and he gets a monthly eBook allowance, but the issue here is access and discoverability. He can’t just browse the shelves from the couch and pull out an interesting-looking spine to flip through for a few minutes. Buying a book (or even checking it out of the library) incurs a kind of commitment that is larger than we might want. Oddly: I’ve bought many physical books that I didn’t enjoy, so just stopped reading them — because they’re around, I know that I might pick them up again later — and often have. But when I buy an eBook, I slog through it unless I really dislike it — because I know that once I put it down, it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind, lost in my eReader.

I don’t how how to reconcile interior design and architecture with having more visible bookspace. Indeed, I suspect that architects are responding as much to trends (people own fewer books, so don’t want space for them) as they are causing them. But I do think this is something for parents in particular to think about: Where, in your common family space, can you fit a bookshelf, or bookshelves? And is that bookshelf a common shelf with everyone’s books (yes, even the ones that probably aren’t appropriate yet for your kids)?

Update: The New York Times no less also has a piece on this topic. You should read that one too: (H/T to Richard Eriksson)

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