As another Memorial Day weekend arrives, Louisiana begins its summer reading season without one of the state’s abiding champions of the written word, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer.
Roemer, who died earlier this month at 77, was probably the biggest reader to occupy Louisiana’s Governor’s Mansion. He got the book bug early, reading the six-volume “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by the time he turned 10.
After leaving office in 1992, Roemer frequently patronized local bookstores — so much so that I sometimes joked about him setting up a government in exile among the shelves.
A few years ago, while my son was still in high school, we spotted Roemer at a display table when we visited a bookstore in our neighborhood. My son, then in student government, was learning how to reconcile ideals with compromise. We approached the former governor, and I introduced him to my son as a leader who had acquired a scar or two while facing his own challenges in nudging the needle of progress in the right direction.
It was good for my son to see a former governor combing the latest hardbacks. Keeping young men interested in reading can be a special challenge, perhaps because it's often seen as a quietly passive pastime, something not suited to the life of action we typically view as the manly ideal.
But some of history’s most active leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, have been avid readers, too. Reading didn’t stunt their vigorous lives; it enriched and informed them.
On the weekend before Roemer’s death, The Wall Street Journal published an article noting a precipitous decline in reading among young Americans. Here’s its key insight: “The percentage of high school students who read books or other long-form content every day has dropped from 60 percent to 15 percent since the 1980s.”
The article also noted an increase over recent decades in the number of teens who seem unhappy. Although the Journal didn’t make a direct link between the decline in reading and emotional health among young people, such a connection wouldn’t be surprising.
Reading doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, and it doesn’t even uniformly make us better people. But finding other perspectives within the pages of a book can lift us beyond our narrow views and expand our sense of possibility.
As the youngest child of a large family, I sometimes wondered how I might face life after leaving the nest. Reading “Robinson Crusoe” in my early summers, I learned through the castaway tale that even if we’re alone — or feel alone — we can do big things. That lesson helpfully shaped my later years of bachelorhood, marriage and fatherhood.
Of course, no one is ever alone with a book at hand, something Buddy Roemer knew. Maybe the best way to honor his legacy is to open up a book and read.