July 8, 2010

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Who reads anymore?

It’s a question that haunts many people in this and other corners of the publishing business. As we toil away, producing news stories, essays, books, magazines and poems, we all wonder a bit just how much longer we’ll really be employed. After all, is reading going to be around much longer?

In the news biz, we’ve been grappling with changing means of digesting information. As news readers drift online, news stories are shrinking to fit ever smaller attention spans and mobile devices. There’s a lot that gets lost in the new diet news, but arguably, people are still digesting information.

More worrisome, maybe, than the ever shrinking news is the dwindling import of more permanent forms of writing, in particular the novel, though appetites for informative non-fiction books have dwindled, too.

The last poll I read on the subject was published in 2007 by the Associated Press and concluded that one in four (27 percent) of Americans had not read a single book in a year. The average number of books read by the typical person in a year was four.

In that same study, among those who identified themselves as readers, the average man read five books annually while the average woman read nine. Less than 5 percent read poetry, classical literature or politics/current events. People are reading popular fiction – mysteries, romance, Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, etc. – but less than five percent spend time with serious literature.

So in this climate, our Fiction and Poetry Edition – the third we’ve conducted in the last four years – seems almost antediluvian. The reading of poetry, literary short stories that tell us something about our culture, about us, is nearly non-existent. Books have certainly not stopped entertaining us, but they are no longer a part of any national conversation. That role is now reserved for documentary films and magazine articles. When we read, we seem to prefer vampires.

It would be easy to throw your hands up and give up in the face of such depressing statistics. But even if literature is only enjoyed by five percent of us, it’s important. Without literature those of us who read would be lost. We need to wrap our minds around something that takes longer to live through than two hours. Nothing else, no matter the tech advantage, can take you to the places a great novel can.

So with that in mind, and with this weekend’s Chestnut Hill Book Festival – a really great, local celebration of the book and reading – I’m optimistic that you, our readers, will enjoy the short story and poems we’ve selected for this, our third Fiction and Poetry Edition in four years.

All of the poems selected here were selected for their voice, their style and for what they communicated. The best discovery of the bunch, though, was Horace Deacon, a retired industrial chemical salesman from East Falls who really knocked us out with the strength of his voice. Included are two of his poems and the terrific short story, “The dental life of Mickey Walters.” Deacon’s work and poems by others begin on page 6.

Finally, if you like the work you’ve read here, be sure to join us at Roller’s Flying Fish restaurant, 8142 Germantown Ave., 1 p.m. on Sunday, July 11, for readings by our published poets. The art of reading may be nearly lost, but the few of us who still enjoy it will find a lot to like this weekend at the book festival.

Pete Mazzaccaro


Commentary: Tripped up over faulty crosswalks

About a month after they were glued to the pavement, rubber white crosswalk markers are a mess and a hazard to pedestrians. Who’s responsible? Good question. (Photo by Adam Garnick)

I thought we hit technological rock bottom when our first instinct to fix the BP oil spill was to clog it with trash, mud, and golf balls. I was wrong. It hit rock bottom when I tripped over the new Germantown Avenue crosswalks. 

Yes, you may be wondering how I could trip over a painted crosswalk. If only they were painted. Instead, the new crosswalks are white rubber mats that were glued to the pavement. About a month after they were put down, they look as if the construction workers played a game of twister on the crosswalk stripes. They look liked crumbled newspapers.

Even more difficult than walking on these crosswalks is trying to figure out who is responsible for laying these eyesores (and foot-sores) down. My investigation led me to call the city of Philadelphia’s 311 helpline. The five minutes of Muzak made the experience feel more like a call to Verizon’s tech support line.

With such a pressing issue, I couldn’t wait any longer. I called the city’s Streets Department, which transferred me to the line striping department, which said the line stripes are in PennDOT’s jurisdiction since Germantown Avenue is considered a state highway – fair enough.  The woman who answered at PennDOT told me “the guy who is in charge of this issue” was out of the office, and he’d call back in regard to my complaint.

While waiting for that phone call from PennDOT, I took a stroll, camera in hand, up and down Germantown Avenue – the difference this time is that I was going out of my way to use the crosswalks. Undoubtedly there are worse crosswalks than others. The most troubled spot I could find is the crosswalk at the intersection of Evergreen and Germantown avenues in front of the TD Bank.

To be honest, however, none of the crosswalks really are that pleasing to the eye. In fact, the most comical one (definitely worth checking out) is the stray stripe in the middle of Germantown Avenue as you approach Bethlehem Pike.

After waiting for about five hours for a phone call back, I decided to call the same PennDOT number again. This time, I reached “the guy who is in charge of this issue.” The man was helpful. He was not, however, “in charge of this issue.” Instead, he gave me another number to call. This was about the fourth time I was redirected that day.

The next guy I talked to was “the guy who is in charge of public relations for this issue.” Yet, he had retired, so I got in touch with the man who replaced him. This guy, surprisingly, was not in charge of public relations for this issue. Instead, he gave me the number for the “guy who heads the entire public relations for PennDOT.” 

Finally, Charlie Metzger, a spokesperson for PennDOT, called me back. Metzger was nice enough to look into the issue for me. The results of our conversation, however, were mixed.

On one hand, Metzger said the crosswalks were completely under the city’s jurisdiction, even if Germantown Avenue is considered a state highway. This was yet another contradiction between the city and state governments. On the other hand, Metzger spoke to Steve Niknim, the assistant county maintenance manager, and Niknim would take a ride out to Germantown Avenue to check out the failed walkways. Metzger ended with advice: “call the city back and see what they say”... I thought better.

After two days of investigating the question we’ve all been asking: “Who is responsible for laying down the hideous and failed crosswalks?” I never truly solved the mystery. A tremendous amount of contradiction and confusion within both the city and PennDOT’s offices left me both frustrated and without an answer.

I may not have been successful in finding the party behind the faulty crosswalks, but at least now PennDOT officials are aware of the problem. After two days of phone calls, PennDOT sprung into action to examine the issue by sending out a maintenance manager.

We may not have the most efficient government, but at least we have nice crosswalks ... actually, I take that back. 

Adam Garnick is one of the Local’s Anna Fisher Clark Interns.




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