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Turn off the screens and read a good book over the holidays

Jack Lessenberry

I was recently tempted to bludgeon one of my students into recognizing that interesting things had happened, even before he was born, back in the ancient early 1990s, say.

We were discussing the origins of the World Wide Web, the invention that actually made wide-ranging use of cyberspace possible. Having considered this, he said prior to that, I must have actually had to find things in books.

I pleaded guilty, and told him that, in fact, though I am as much a slave to Google as any man, that I did, indeed, still read books.

He looked thoughtful, and said, “Oh yeah. Like my dad still plays vinyl.”

Well, I still play vinyl too, as a matter of fact, though I was afraid telling my student that would cause sensory overload.

I not only look things up in books, I read them

But I not only look things up in books, I read them, and not just because I have to. You can indeed find all sorts of information about, for example, Soapy Williams, on the internet.

That’s where I go if I suddenly need to know the date our legendary governor died.

But that doesn’t compare to Thomas Noer’s magnificent and fascinating biography, called, simply, Soapy, which came out 10 years ago, and which is a richly textured account of the man and Michigan during his lifetime, which spanned most of the twentieth century.

Holiday season is here, as anyone not trapped in a mine shaft presumably knows, and some people are still looking for presents. You could do a lot worse than buying someone a good book, if only as a tiny gesture of defiance against Wikipedia.

Here’s something that bothers me about the media treats books.

When something important or brilliant is published, we review it. It has a short shelf life to win attention, and then it is quickly forgotten.

Well, that sort of treatment is perfectly justified for instant pseudo-books, like those thrown together following some kidnapping.

Yet the best books don’t rot, or become irrelevant for a long time, if ever.

... to the extent I do know something ... it's largely from a lifetime of reading really good books.

Sometimes people have told me they were utterly amazed at how much I know about the history of our state, something that manages to both please me and make me feel like a fraud. 

After all, I can’t remember much about the policies of Governor Epaphroditus Ransom, who served back in the 1850s. But to the extent I do know something, it isn’t just from scanning headlines or online encyclopedias, it’s largely from a lifetime of reading really good books.

So if you have a reader on your list who cares about this fascinating state, let me make a couple suggestions. The Soapy book is great, but so is Dave Dempsey’s biography of our longest-serving governor, called William G. Milliken, Michigan’s Passionate Moderate.

Read those two well-written books, and you’ll know and understand a lot about how this state evolved. If you care about Detroit, Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography is compelling and short. Nathan Bomey’s Detroit Resurrected will give you the inside story of the bankruptcy.

There’s also a pile of fascinating books on the human drama of the auto industry. And if you read just one good book over the holidays, I guarantee you’ll feel a whole lot better than if you spent the whole time playing World of Warcraft.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Senior news analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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