Hardy Boys and Hardy Readers

  • David Hoffman
    In the summer of ’71, I made it my goal to read every Hardy Boys detective book in existence (over 50 at the time). It was the summer after my mother lost her yearlong battle with cancer. With the school year over, I needed to keep my mind focused and thoroughly submerged in someone else’s trials and tribulations. And so, during that extremely stormy and unstable season, while the radio consistently comforted me with James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend, Carole King’s So Far Away, and the Bee Gees’ How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, I lost myself in the exploits of Frank and Joe Hardy as they helped their detective dad, Fenton, rid their bucolic Bayport of connivers, crooks, and crackpots.

    In my imagination, I became the third Hardy Boy, a tag-along gumshoe who stealthy observed the adventures of his sibling sleuths as they matched wits with some nasty nemeses. I was there, hiding behind the concealed door-in-the-wall While the Clock Ticked.  I spied on my fictional brothers as they entered the house with The Disappearing Floor.  I sweat inside a suit of armor in The Twisted Claw, silently cautioning my brothers of some impeding danger.  In each case, I celebrated with the Hardys as, thanks to our brawn and brains, we cracked some vital code, captured some culprit, or clued the cops in as to a criminal’s whereabouts.

    While the books were formulistic, dated, and void of great literary worth, they were comfort food whose nutritional value lay in their predictable plots, empowering characters, and happily-ever-after resolutions.

    I soon outgrew my interest in the Hardy Boys. Yet, when I look back at that summer of personal and very private sleuthing, I am keenly aware of two things: First, I am convinced that, in part, it was reading that got me through a difficult time in my life, and second, my insatiable appetite for reading has never been repeated. I still read a lot, but not always with the sustained interest or discipline that I once had. 

    Knowing that reading good literature nourishes one’s soul, enhances the imagination and enables one to better understand the human condition (I have often said that reading is a quality of life issue), why has it become, in my opinion, a more difficult and less desirable habit to fit into one’s daily schedule?  Put another way, if reading is such powerful, effective and widely prescribed medicine, why do we fight taking healthy spoonfuls of it?  Think I’m not speaking for most American adults? Read on.

    While driving home from work a few years ago and listening to National Public Radio, I heard book critic, Maureen Corrigan, rave about the new literary epic, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. She too was lamenting on the state of sustained reading in America. She said she believed that, and I quote, “The number of Americans who read literary fiction for pleasure, is fast approaching the number of adults who opt for elective tracheotomies.”  She then cited a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts survey entitled, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.

    While I haven’t read the complete study or reviewed its methodology (based on Census Bureau data), here a few findings that are worth exploring further:

    • Literary reading (novels, short stories, poetry or plays) is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature.
    • There was an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million readers.
    • Women read more literature than men do, but literary reading by both genders is declining. According to the survey, only slightly more than one-third of adult males now read literature.
    • The rate of decline for the youngest adults, those aged 19 to 24, was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population.
    • According to the report, the most important factor in literacy reading rates is education.  Only 14 percent of adults with a grade school education read literature in 2002. By contrast, more than five times as many respondents with a graduate school education—74 percent—read literary works.
    • Adults who did not watch TV in a typical day are 48 percent more likely to be frequent readers—consuming from 12 to 49 books each year—than those who watched one to three hours daily.

    NEA News Room, National Endowment for the Arts, Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline, According to National Endowment for the Arts Survey, 7/8/04 2/25/07

    It doesn’t take a Hardy Boy detective to uncover my own reasons for reading less literature these days—longer work days, more time on electronic gadgets, and other noble but not, excuse the pun, novel distractions.  As a result, books I eagerly purchased, downloaded or checked out from the library, are still taxiing on book shelves, e-readers, night stands and coffee tables, waiting to make a connection with a gate to my brain. I know that for every one of the books that remains unread, I am missing the opportunity to increase my understanding of the world, contribute to meaningful discourse, fully participate in community affairs, and improve the quality of my life.

    We owe it to our children to help them develop good, sustainable reading habits that will allow them to become healthy and contributing members of their communities and grow up to be independent, caring and knowledgeable individuals.  As part of our balanced literacy instruction, and in alignment with Common Core anchor standards, it is our goal to help grow a generation of readers who will, among other things, be able to:

    • Engage in focused and uninterrupted reading
    • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and make logical inferences from it
    •  Cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
    • Posses the tools and strategies to make meaning of what is read (interpret words and phrases, analyze structures of texts, assess point of view)
    • Read and comprehend complex literary and information texts independently and proficiently.
    • Identify the major themes in and across texts
    • Develop personal and meaningful reading relationships with authors who illuminate and enrich their lives
    • Comprehend the complex ideas contained in the simplest of poetry
    • Engage in literary discourse that is respectful, accountable, and scholarly
    • Value reading as a pleasurable and preferred activity

    At the conclusion of each Hardy Boys book, the author teased the reader with a glimpse of the sleuths’ next case in the guise of a sentence like …little did Frank and Joe know that their taxing days of incessant TV watching, web-surfing, text messaging, and x-box marathons would soon come to an end when faced with The [Book] Case of Incredibly Enriching Books.

    Ah, if only life imitated art.


    David Hoffman