Jay Lacklen: Book readers


Jay Lacklen



There are two types of people in the world, those who read books, and those who do not.  


I discovered this as I attempted to write an introduction for the people in a 1955 family portrait of my mother''s branch of the family that displayed me as a 9-year-old cross-legged on the floor.  


I began with the grandparents seated in the middle of the picture. The interesting factor in their relationship concerned their marriage succeeding despite a wide difference in education levels. My grandmother had finished college early in the 20th century and taught in a one-room Kentucky schoolhouse where not all of the children wore shoes. My grandfather had dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work as a farmer and oil field worker and had continued to work well into his 70s as night watchman. Grandma had many books, Grandpa, none.  


As I moved on to the next generation, that of my parents, something curious became evident. In nearly every instance, one of the pair read books while the other did not. Now very curious, I shifted from horizontal to vertical and reviewed my lineage. In addition to the grandparent''s disparity in education level and book reading proclivity, my parents had the same alignment, but reversed.  


While my father had a graduate degree from Stanford, my mother had attended a small Kentucky college for two years. My father read books relentlessly; my mother never, ever, touched one. (Yet she managed to hold her own in Scrabble games with the bookies.)  


Dropping down to me, the rule held. I had a college degree and my first wife, a high school diploma. I read books, my wife would never, ever, touch one.  


The rule became re-enforced for me this weekend as my second daughter graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in journalism as her Army husband, who has some college, prepared to leave for Iraq. My daughter reads voraciously, her husband does not.  


I am not sure what to make of all this. Why do some people read books, and others do not? What difference does it make?  


I suspect readers wear this proclivity as a badge of honor and as self-awarded renown that makes them special. In one aspect, it seems to. In the family history above, while all of the book readers graduated from college, none of the non-readers did.  


It also seems true that reading confers a probability of writing adequately or well. Only by reviewing many thousands of pages of edited prose can one learn to write properly and instinctively. I feel sure most journalists, academics, and white-collar professionals are book readers; their professions demand that they be.  


Non-readers, however, can have accolades that they may not be able to adequately express, but that are evident nonetheless.  


President Lyndon Johnson did not read books, he read people, and did so extremely well. This people-reading ability seems required in politics and mere book reading will not necessarily make for a good political career.  


Other people read selectively, if minimally, in areas that intrigue them, such as in the mechanics of car repair, or furniture construction, or farming. The one inadequacy of my book learning becomes evident when a mechanic tries to enlighten me on what is wrong with my car. He might as well be talking to a telephone pole.  


In studying history, it is often the book readers who lead societies off cliffs (the French Revolution) or, contrarily, form marvelous societies with the same set of facts (Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson).  


In many venues, book readers are considered troublemakers who too often challenge authority or ask disturbing questions. That, I insist, is their imperative job.  


In my Air Force pilot training classes, I always ask any fellow history majors (book readers) to raise their hands (there are usually few, most of the students being some sort of engineer). I then insist that every class needs a history major.  


You see, I tell them, some time in your career the Air Force will order you to line up in a four-abreast column and march off a cliff of some sort. The engineers will quickly, and proudly, calculate how soon the column will reach the cliff, how many rows will fall off the cliff per minute, what the fall acceleration rate will be, and how many g-forces will be encountered as the bodies hit the rocks below.  


The history majors (book readers), I conclude, pointedly, are there to ask the engineers the imperative, inexplicably unasked, question: Why are we marching off this cliff?


Jay Lacklen is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot, who flew missions in Vietnam and Iraq. Presently he is simulator instructor at CAFB and is writing a book about his experiences in the Air Force.


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