Bookworms in TV Land

A few days ago the teacher of one of the children in the Saadon family contacted his parents and reported that she had caught the child reading a book during class.

"I didn't know what to do, whether to be angry at him or to encourage him for reading," the teacher shared with the parents.

Another teacher reported to the parents that their daughter, who reads books a lot, speaks in lofty and proper language and isn't always understood by her peers.

As it turns out, the unusual behavior of these two youngsters from the Saadon family characterize the entire family, which this week received official recognition when the library network in Afula honored it as the family that read the most books in the city during the past year.

According to Afula libraries director Limor Hershkowitz, the Saadon family had read 497 books during the year, not including books they bought or took out of school libraries.

Incidentally, the Saadons aren't the only family that gulps down books at a dizzying pace - in 2007 it lost first place to a family that beat them by two books.

Smadar and Pinhas Saadon have five children. The youngest is five years old and doesn't read yet.

"Even before the children were a year old I preferred to buy them books rather than toys. I think that it's more educational," says Smadar, a nurse. "I didn't have this in my own childhood."

She says that the books become a major topic of discussion at home. Family members share experiences, make recommendations and pass books along from hand to hand. When they go on vacation, packing a stack of books becomes as essential as clothing.

In the Saadon home, there isn't a television, because the parents see it as, "a machine that transmits messages that aren't educational these days."

Smadar Saadon says that she knows that they are perceived as "a strange phenomenon. But I'm proud of it."

According to her, the municipal library and the staff of librarians also play a role in the reading experience.

The Central Library in Afula is located in an impressive new building planned by architect Ram Karmi. Hershkowitz says that the construction and computerizing of the library was a major project for the municipality. Its location in the center of town also emphasizes its importance.

In addition, there are two branch libraries, in the neighborhoods of Upper Afula and Givat Hamoreh.

The city's attempt to bring the public into the library came as a response to the steady decline in the number of readers who come into public libraries.

"There has been a gradual decline in the number of readers since the 1980s," says Victor Ben-Naim, the director of the department of libraries at the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport. "This is happening in Israel and everywhere in the world. However, in some countries, like England, there are twice as many readers at public libraries, proportionally, in comparison to Israel."

Ben-Naim notes that today, 16.8 percent of the inhabitants of Israel are registered readers at public libraries, down from 27 percent in the 1980s. He believes that once the data from last year is sifted through, it will emerge that there has been a large increase in the number of readers, of about 20 percent, following an amendment to the Public Libraries Law that has restored state support for them, brought about the cancellation of readers' fees and added funding.

"In the wake of this we are buying more books, technology is coming in and there are cultural activities," he said. The Afula Library, for example, has an Internet site through which readers can reserve books and get information from librarians.

"We are making the library accessible and strengthening the connection with the readers," explains Hershkowitz. At the facility, meetings are held between children and storytellers and in an attempt to bring the children closer to the written word, there are also meetings with popular composers, poets and singers, like Hemi Rodner, Shlomi Shaban, Yoni Rechter, Ronny Someck and others.

Hershkowitz has also opened a department for lending compact discs, though patrons may be reading more than the liner notes.

"On the way to the discs," she notes, "the youngsters are exposed to the reading room and the computer stations and in the end they leave here with a book."