Friday, January 16, 2009

Are we reading more? Or less?

Please click through the link in the title above to read the NY Times story on the rising percentage of readers, as documented by the National Endowment for the Arts. Obviously this is a book blog, so I suppose I ought to be glad of any news that hints that Americans' obsession with technology in its glorious technicolor wonder might be abating, if only a little. I'm not anti technology by any means, but there's something special about books and bookstores and libraries that speaks deeply to my heart. UNESCO feels books and publishing and all related activities to be important, to be worth saving. I find much to be gloomy about, unfortunately.

First of 'the gloomies' is the ongoing closing of bookshops around the world. Big box, indies, specialty stores, used bookstores. Bookstores need to be put on the endangered species list. Former big box powerhouse Borders is on the ropes, and competitor Barnes & Noble too weak or too wary to buy them. Internationally renowned specialty shop Murder One is reputed to be closing at the end of this month, click here for details. Meanwhile, the little used book store in my area has only renewed their lease for five years instead of the usual ten. Why? Not because her business is bad, but because the landlord can't keep an anchor store in the complex and thus traffic as a whole has dropped off. One of the last locally owned independant bookstore chains finally threw in the towel last September.

It's all very depressing really. I love to satisfy my book cravings in a real store with real books on the shelves. I'm not against Amazon or any of the other book e-tailers, but somehow online book shopping doesn't give me the same satified sigh or joyful grin walking into a brick and mortar store does. Call me old fashioned. How are we going to try and get more people to read if there aren't any bookstores for them to walk into?

The other thing is that the parameters of the study asked people if they'd read one book in the previous year!One measly little book in an entire year. And one of the people quoted in the story are happy the perentage has risen from a low of forty six percent to the current fifty percent. I guess I shouldn't bitch, really. The first year the statistics were done (1982) the reading percentage was only fifty six percent. It boggles my mind, really. The thought that fifty percent of the public can't be arsed to read one book in an entire year. Video game guides would count. Manga counts. It's pathetic- one books a year. No wonder American educational statistics are so low compared to other countries. Reading is one of the basic building blocks.

I've not read the study, as it hasn't been released yet, but the overall numbers are depressing. A one year uptick does not make a trend. Cutting library funding is a popular pastime, sure to become more common in the coming years as budgets get tighter and tighter. If people can't find a bookstore and if there isn't a bookshop in their neighborhood, how in heaven's name are they going to read anything in the first place? Somehow between last year's report, which sounds like the equivalent of "the sky is falling, the sky is falling" and this year's comment that (paraphrasing here) maybe we aren't going to end up dumb as a box of rocks after all, is the happy medium one might suppose to be closer to the truth.

I think that the reporter's own bias shows in the comment which mentions that the NEA study doesn't differentiate between people who read classics and people who read genre authors and people who read *gasp* fanfic on the 'net. May I ask you: what difference does it make what or who or where people are reading? Reading Kresley Cole or Dumas or slash fanfic? People are reading. That's all that counts. Encourage folks any way we can. If someone who doesn't read is handed say, Madame Bovary or Great Expectations or Edith Wharton the new reader may not be inspired to keep reading. They might find it hard going. If you hand them something more contemporary, something written in more modern language, something lighter, they might keep going. Read another one. That's the ultimate goal isn't it? To lure more non readers into the joy of reading?

Stop all the hand wringing over the lack or people who read 'literary works.' Convince them to read anything. Then slowly feed them good books one at a time. Show them how wonderful the classics can be. Changing a nonreader into a lover of serious lit fic is going to be difficult. Whetting the palate with lighter fare first is more likey to work. Appetizers always come before dinner, yes?

Slightly off topic: UNESCO has a World Book Capital City and named Beirut Lebanon the 2009 World Book Capital. UNESCO has also written out a proposed national book policy. I wish we had one here. Maybe then we'd have higher reading rates. :(

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