In this age of computer video games, television, and over-the-top Hollywood films, libraries have to compete more fiercely than ever for attention. Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, recently offered her hand to the cause at a reading in New York City.
The Kennedy family saga of grand-scale triumphs and tragedies has been documented in hundreds of books and inspired dozens of novels. It is somehow fitting, then, that a great love and respect for literature and poetry is deeply ingrained in the Kennedy family itself.
Reverence for the written word is evident in the most stirring speeches of the late President John F. Kennedy, the late Senator Robert Kennedy, and current U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, all of whom have often quoted the likes of Shakespeare and Tennyson.
Now, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late president and Jacqueline Kennedy, has published a compilation of poems her mother read to her as a child, including a few penned by the late Mrs. Kennedy herself. The book, The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is one of the surprise bestsellers of this holiday season.
At a recent reading of her new book, Ms. Kennedy took a moment to set the record straight about who her mother really was. "She really did believe in the power of words. When many people think of her, they think about her style and her image, but those are just sort of a starting point for me. So I really wanted to share with people, now that she's become a part of history, some of the things that I know made her special, and that is reading and ideas," she says.
As part of her participation in a five-year educational initiative by the American Library Association called "At Your Library", Mrs. Kennedy read poems from the book to a gathering of attentive 7th and 8th graders in a Harlem library. She prefaced the reading with a particularly relevant quote of her mother's, "Read for escape, read for adventure, read for romance, but read the great writers. You will find to your delight that they are easier and more a joy to read than the second rate ones. They touch your imagination, your deepest yearnings, and when your imagination is stirred, it can lead you down paths you never dreamed you would travel. If you read great language, you will develop, without your realizing it, and appreciation for excellence that can shape your life," she says.
Caroline Kennedy went on to read selections from Langston Hughes, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Frost, all of whom are part of the new book.
Publishers tell us that the general public does not have a voracious appetite for poetry. It is extremely rare, for example, for a volume of poetry to land on the New York Times bestseller list. And yet, that is where The Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has been for weeks. What's even more remarkable is that it is not the only volume of poetry currently on the list. There are two others. Katie Long, director of publicity at Hyperion Publishing, which published Ms. Kennedy book, has a theory on this poetic phenomenon."Everybody loves the entire Kennedy family.That had something to do with it. But I think it was also a time where the entire nation had really turned to being more reflective and introspective, wanting to find comfort in some way.To have poetry such as the poems in this book that do provide a look at the meaning of life in some ways and, as well, old comforting favorites, whether they be poems children enjoy or more adult poems, I think that the timing was unbelievably right for a book like this," she says.
In spite of heavy competition from television, movies, and computer games, books are holding their own, and libraries are far from empty. According to Marsha Spyros, the Co-ordinator of Adult Services for the New York Public Library, this is in part because people have more serious matters on their minds. "Libraries are more heavily used than ever. There's always a correlation between difficult times historically, economically and the use of libraries. As soon as September 11 occurred, libraries had been up before that, but, we had people out of work, people with all kinds of needs, who are coming to libraries to have those needs met," she said. Poetry on the bestseller list. People spending more time in the library. For the better part of the last 50 years, educators have been urging us to read more, and watch less television. Maybe it's finally getting through.