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Fading voices, beauty lost

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Elmore Leonard died last month. He was old — well into his 80s — and no one lasts forever. Nevertheless, it made me sad and took from us a voice that deserved to be heard.

If you’ve read contemporary fiction over the past three decades (and more, really), you should be at least passingly familiar with Leonard. His novels, which he started writing fairly late in life but still produced in prodigious quantity, included “Get Shorty,” “Tishomingo Blues,” “Maximum Bob,” “Cat Chaser” and scores of others. His followers started out as a near-cult, but quickly grew to include a broad cross-section of the reading public.

Hollywood loved Elmore Leonard. “Get Shorty” with John Travolta, “Out of Sight” with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, and “3:10 to Yuma”, both versions, came from the pen of Leonard. He created the character Raylan Givens, which spawned the television show “Justified.” His other books-into-movies include the crime dramas “Killshot”, “Mr. Majestyk”, “Stick” and “52 Pickup” and the westerns “Valdez Is Coming” and “Hombre.” He started writing western novels and short stories, and when that genre petered out, he turned to crime. But he was a crime writer like no other; his dialogue was harsh and honest, his characters real and unvarnished. The good weren’t always completely good and the bad often had endearing traits, making his characters fascinating from beginning to end.

Now he’s gone, and he’s joined a whole host of other writers who have sustained me throughout a long life of reading. Donald E. Westlake, Robert B. Parker, Tony Hillerman, John D. McDonald, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut — all gone, vibrant voices silenced by the grave. Their passing has marked for me the passage of time that I’d often rather not embrace.

Reading has for a very long time — it seems forever — sustained me. I never went to kindergarten (my father joked that I was too busy reading at home) but I was reading when I did hit school, and I kept reading all the long years since. It’s probably no real surprise that I’ve spent the last 41 years in the newspaper business, given my love of the written word.

My mother was, for a time, librarian for a tiny community library that was housed in the central school. Both she and my father read to me from birth to the point where I was happier reading to myself, and I can’t remember a birthday or Christmas when a book or books weren’t among the gifts whose wrapping I eagerly shredded. And that has never changed: my stepkids last Christmas gave me a lovely gift certificate to Amazon to “buy books for your Kindle.”

But now, as I reflect on a reading life, I have fears that the beautifully written word may not have the future it deserves. While the news that Flower Memorial Library had a spectacularly successful summer reading program is delightful, the publishing industry as a whole is facing hard times. The demise of Borders and the struggles of Barnes & Noble, two giants of the retail book industry, do not portend well for the future of ink-on-paper books. If that slack were taken up by electronic publishing, this would be a technological, not cultural, issue. But is it?

Some say it is, but I’m not convinced they can back it up with facts. They can say this: Market research suggests that half of all magazine and newspaper circulation will be via digital delivery by the end of 2015, and that half of all reading in the United States will be done without paper by 2015.

But that doesn’t tell us how much reading will be done, it just suggests how. And anyone with concerns that reading itself is suffering can’t help but be alarmed by the English language arts scores in standardized tests given to school children. No matter how you sugar-coat it, by eighth grade, we should be putting out students with a much higher literacy standard than we are achieving.

There are plenty of reasons offered for the decline in reading skills and desires. Everything from parents too busy to read to their children, to the proliferation of cell-phone texting, to the 140-character Twitter limits, have been offered up as causes. And all the causes are plausible. U cant no Y, as the text message might say — but you can rue the trend, and you can hope there is a resurgence of the belief in and the reliance on and the beauty of the written word. If not, generations behind me will be far the poorer for that.

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