People of the (Face)book?

The truth is that I do spend a lot of time on the popular social utility website Facebook.

Social media 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Social media 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Apparently, I have acquired a new nickname.
On a recent Friday night after services, as the congregants shook hands wishing each other Shabbat Shalom, I approached a long-time acquaintance with my right hand outstretched, to which he responded, “Hey, it’s Mr. Facebook!” The truth is that I do spend a lot of time on the popular social utility website Facebook (as my long-time acquaintance and Facebook friend can attest to). I have been known to change my profile picture and status update multiple times a day, as the muse strikes me, so maybe the moniker is accurate.
And I’m not alone. I don’t know the exact numbers, but certainly millions of Jews worldwide (including countless Israelis) are on the Facebook site connecting and chatting with their “Facebook Friends” on a daily basis.
But what are the drawbacks? I have found that the more time one spends on that site (and Twitter too, but don’t get me started on that), the less time one spends on other more worthwhile pursuits, like reading. Have we gone from being “The People of the Book” to “The People of the Facebook”? This week, Israel opens its annual Hebrew Book Week with pomp and circumstance. Books will be sold to the public at open booths in a fair-like atmosphere. Authors will read from their works and sign purchased copies. Adults and children alike will browse (and hopefully buy) all kinds of books. It’s a celebration of the written word.
But along with Hebrew Book Week come the inevitable polls. The polls that tell us how Israelis (including young people) are reading fewer books than in previous years. Polls that show that Israeli teens are hardly reading for pleasure at all.
SO, WHAT can be done to get more young people to stop sending text messages and start reading more texts? It depends on the books.
Whether you loved or hated the Harry Potter series, author J. K. Rowling got kids (and adults) reading books again in record numbers. The same could be said for the latest books teens rush to read (in English or translated into Hebrew) like the Twilight series (about vampires) or the currently popular youth novel The Hunger Games.
The northern California public high school I attended in the late 1980s instituted a simple program to increase reading among the student body. It was called Sustained Silent Reading (SSR). Once a week, all seven of our class periods would be cut short by five minutes and the time saved was allotted to SSR. Whether you were in the science lab, gym, or auto shop, when it came time for SSR, all teachers stopped their lessons and students were expected to pull out a book and read silently at their desks for 35 minutes.
I remember the mad scramble for books when SSR was about to start. Some teachers brought novels for students to choose from for those who didn’t bring a book. Jocks traded copies of Sports Illustrated while the cheerleaders flipped through romance novels and the nerds read science fiction.
Even the teachers read at their desks. At first we resisted, but eventually we came to look forward to SSR and the escape that reading for pleasure brought from the daily class routine.
But let’s not forget the ultimate bestseller, the Book of Books, the Bible. Once again, it tops the charts as the world’s most widely read book. How did it get to be number one? It probably all started with Moses, who, according to tradition, instituted that the Torah be read every Shabbat; and later with Ezra the Scribe, who was responsible for instituting weekly readings on market days (Mondays and Thursdays), so that three days should never pass without a public Torah reading.
In fact, if it were up to my high school principal, this practice might be dubbed SPR (Sustained Public Reading).
NOW, I don’t know if the Israeli school system will initiate their own version of SSR in the classroom, but even if they don’t, maybe we should incorporate it into our regular schedule. The reading (R) is of course important, but it should also be silent (S), which means no distractions.
Turn off the radio, TV, iPod, Internet and cell phone – which means “no texting” and yes, also no Facebook.
But perhaps the most important element is the first “S,” “sustained.” The way to increase reading among the public is to do it regularly, and to keep doing it.
And just maybe, if I start making time for a little SSR, my long-time acquaintance might start calling me simply, “Mr. Book.”
The writer has an MA in creative writing from Bar- Ilan University.