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TeleRead and the Philosopher
Why Amos Bokros Wants Library Books to Go on the Internet

Amos Bokros writes and philosophizes from Florida while supporting himself at Wal-Mart. Earlier he worked as a nurse's assistant in San Diego. For a little more on Amos, see below.

By Amos Bokros

I can't imagine life without my library card.

Eric Hoffer is my favorite example of the promise of libraries; he was a homeless tramp for many years and worked as a longshoreman, but he loved to read, and he had library cards all across California. Later he himself became an author and columnist. With his mix of empirical knowledge and the book variety, he was a truly educated man.

TeleRead, a plan for a tax-supported national digital library and low-cost computers for reading, could bring the best books to today's Hoffers no matter where they lived or how poor they were. TeleRead would not just help turn brilliant tramps and longshoremen into philosophers. It could also help impart the knowledge that working people need to get ahead. Especially TeleRead could enrich the lives of millions of Americans who, like me, suffer from dyslexia.

Beyond that, TeleRead would aid the baby boomers as they aged and their vision blurred; they could adjust the size of the "print" on their computer screens. Finally, and just as important, TeleRead would be one way to distribute a wide variety of books to the inner-city ghettos and impoverished rural areas, where children are growing up today in bookless homes.

No, not everyone would take advantage of TeleRead. But it at least would be there for everyone, especially those of us with special needs. Francis Bacon once said, "Knowledge is power." TeleRead would simply be a more accessible type of a public library for those who live by Bacon's maxim. I myself try. My dyslexia made my reading extremely slow and difficult when I was in school. Until the past five years I could not easily read book-length material; I relied primarily on television and documentaries for educating myself.

This harmed my grades and even my social life. Honor Society students shunned me since my grades were so poor, and at the same time I did not fit in with the laggards who disdained books and learning. I always looked for shorter books on topics that interested me. A two-hundred-page book would take me a month to read and that assumed you gave me plenty of spare time to read it.

A breakthrough came when I discovered by accident the books on tape for the blind. I loved them. A friend of mine had recommended James Michener's The Source, but it was as long as War and Peace, about a thousand pages. I thought to myself, "This will take me a lifetime to read." I began listening to the tape and then could follow the book as if I were listening to a radio program or watching a movie. Along with the tape of the book I had a hardback copy of The Source. So while the narrator read, I looked at the text and read along with him; this was like getting glasses after not being able to see well my whole life.

One day off from my job as a certified nursing assistant, I read for about twelve or fourteen hours. I read the entire Source in a few weeks and only in my spare time. Ironically computers brought me closer to books. I never thought I could so much prefer reading to watching movies or television. But while the method was a breakthrough, it had limitations. It was often difficult to find recordings of books on just the right topics for me. And it took a long time for books to get recorded on special request. I relied on friends to read to me and record things for me, but that made me dependent on others and hurt my self-esteem.

Then I enjoyed another breakthrough. I found out about a program put out by Arkenstone called Open Book. This enabled me to use a scanner and copy a book; and then the computer could read the book to me. Yes, the voice sounded choppy, but I didn't care--I felt both captivated and liberated. Of course, scanning was tedious, boring and time-consuming; and newspapers and certain books were impossible.

Next I tried the Internet. Without scanning and without mistakes, I could download online books into my computer; but the range of choices was rather dismal. I could read classics, but not modern, copyrighted books. They showed up just as names in online library catalogues--sometimes at libraries a continent away. And the interlibrary loan system was hardly a salvation; it forced me to wait weeks and weeks for the books I wanted. Sometimes I could not check out the material from the library, and besides, I could not conveniently bring my computer scanner program to the library. So I would have to copy material there before I brought it home at ten or fifteen cents a page.

That problem persists. I could set aside more money for photocopying if I lived in a place less expensive than San Diego; but then, good libraries would not be near.

Physical libraries have other limits. The San Diego library can't help me with current books that it hasn't bought yet. I must wait, and if I am trying to write something and I need the material, I may be set back by months.

A personal library is not a full solution, either. I have had to store books in the garage and keep some with my parents and friends. And some I have had to discard. Even if I still have the book, I must go on a digging expedition to find it. Nonbooklovers, nonscholars and nonwriters don't understand why you need quick easy access to your own large personal library. To a certain extent it is like a security blanket. But more than that, you don't know when you need a book. Often I will be writing something; and all of a sudden I will remember an obscure work I read fifteen years ago. I will want to quickly look at it and quote a choice passage. This should be quick and easy, but instead it is irksome and time consuming.

Even more significant is the cost of a personal library; I have had to discipline myself not to buy books. Books come out in hard cover first and usually do not ever reach paperback; they are simply too expensive for me. I almost cried after I went to a discount store, found a biography but couldn't buy it because of the $20 price tag.

So when I read a column in U. S. News and World Report about TeleRead, I became extremely excited. TeleRead ( on the Web) does not come from a lobbying firm or from a big bureaucracy trying to create more jobs for the usual people. Rather it's a grassroots movement started by David Rothman, a writer in Virginia, and it goes beyond ideology. Among TeleRead's supporters are not just liberals but also conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr., the author and columnist. The TeleRead movement, though still small, is spreading; for example, a Mexican journalist has been advocating the idea for his own country.

Uniting us all is a desire for mass literacy in an electronic age, along with the simple wish to help spread the best books around to the appreciative while providing for fair compensation for writers and publishers. The plan doesn't just call for a well-stocked national digital library supported by a mixture of tax money and philanthropy. It also calls for a focused government-industry effort to encourage the development and sales of small, tablet-style computers fit for reading book--devices far superior to the pioneering models that are just about to hit the market.

I do know that a TeleRead national library could enable people like me, independent scholars with special needs, to be more self reliant and more productive. TeleRead would let me live anywhere and yet be able to call up the best books and periodicals--instantly. I wouldn't have to do the laborious work of scanning. I could carry all my books and writing in a light briefcase and not have to spend a fortune on my reading. I could compete with any university professor; I wouldn't have to worry about storing books or waiting forever to get them.

Without question, TeleRead would help me and millions of other Americans--what better way to narrow the gap between book people and working people? I know just how Eric Hoffer would have felt about this.

Amos Bokros contacted us after reading about TeleRead in U.S. News & World Report. A modified version of this essay ran in January 1999 in the San Diego daily. Check out his Web site.