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Around the Web with Jessica Zellers

*Originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of RA News.*

None of my classes in library school prepared me for how much time I would spend unjamming the photocopier, or directing people to the bathroom, or chopping up scrap paper because, well, someone's got to do it. Public service is rarely glamorous.

The flip side is when you get to connect with patrons in a meaningful way. You find just the right article to answer a reference question, or you introduce a reader to her new favorite author. And if you work with children, you get to see them light up when they find the books about horses or Star Wars or sharks.

The problem is that you don't see which children you're missing. You know the children who come to the library, and maybe you know the children at the daycares and the schools and the bookmobile stops. But what about the kids who fall through the cracks?

"You know the children who come to the library, and maybe you know the children at the daycares and the schools and the bookmobile stops. But what about the kids who fall through the cracks?"

You wouldn't have known twelve-year-old Matthew Flores of Utah, who couldn't afford bus fare to get to the library. He was so desperate for reading material that he asked his postal carrier for spare junk mail. Ron Lynch, the postman, asked his friends on Facebook to help the young reader, and book donations came pouring in.

That's why I'm pleased to see a new program that is bringing books to children in need.

Three locations in an underprivileged Washington, DC neighborhood -- a Salvation Army, a church, and a grocery store -- are being supplied with vending machines that are stocked with books for readers aged 0-14. Best of all, the vending machines are completely free.

One of the well-meaning comments at the end of the article suggests that the money should have been spent on building a library. Leaving aside the fact that new libraries cost several millions dollars more than new vending machines, the comment misses a crucial point, that not everyone has access to a library. Even our best efforts at outreach cannot bring books to every reader.

This is a matter of economic privilege, of course. Some people can't read books because they don't have access to free public libraries -- or because they don't realize they have access, which amounts to the same thing. Hugh McGuire's contemplative article "Why Can't We Read Anymore?" looks at a different angle. Though a lifelong reader, McGuire was appalled to realize that, despite taking a book to bed most nights, he finished only four books last year.

Like so many others in the same quandary, McGuire looked for the culprit and found digital distraction to blame. He no longer had the concentration for reading whole books. He was distracted by the instant-gratification rush of dopamine that comes from checking email and twitter and internet links. His article is worth reading for its eloquent defense of books -- whole books, as opposed to articles or television shows or art, which are worthy but intrinsically different -- and for his suggestions on how to reclaim books for those who have lost the capacity to read.

My own relationship with books (current status: It's Complicated) has had its ups and downs through the years, though my fiction reading has been thriving recently, thanks to an unsuspected fondness for flash fiction. I was skeptical about very short stories (typically one hundred to one thousand words), but now I look forward to the emails I get from Daily Science Fiction. I'm reading these just for fun, but I've also started to poke around at websites like Vestal Review that offer free bite-size stories in genres outside my comfort zone.

I'm only reading flash fiction if it's published by a website that pays professional rates, roughly five or six cents per word. Professional pay usually indicates professional-quality writing, whereas stories published at less lucrative pay rates (such as zero cents per word) are more of a mixed bag. It's like slogging through Amazon's self-published e-books: there's some good stuff in there, but it's hard to find.

And how any of this translates to per-page rates is beyond me. Authors who publish through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select program are now getting royalties based on how many pages each customer reads. This is obviously bad news for writers of shorter fiction, and I have to question a system that equates page count with value; by that logic, E. L. James' latest novel, Grey, is four times better than George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Finding good things to read can be a challenge, especially in an online environment. As always, you can find good suggestions at your local public library -- assuming, of course, you can get to one.

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Jessica Zellers is a Collection Development Librarian with the Mid-Continent Public Library. She has a weakness for fat Russian novels.