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My Take on Reading in America

A few days removed from the AP-Ispos survey on reading (or not) in America and John Freeman’s response to this, there are a couple of reactions and ideas that have stuck with me and, I think, are worth fleshing out a bit.

First off, John Freeman’s take is not perfect. Obviously, the Reading Room in Las Vegas is a great store (with a buyer in Irma Wolfson who is definitely dedicated to representing great international literature), and the entire issue of whether we read or not, why, and what the lasting consequences are, is a lot more complicated than how Freeman represents it.

That said, it’s definitely easier to attack someone online than it is to take a stand for something, which is what makes blogs both fun to read and easy to dismiss. So yes, people on the 6 train in New York read books, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that reading plays well in Peoria. (Trust me, it doesn’t.) And it always seems that whenever someone pushes for a greater appreciation of quality literature, a genre writer jumps up screaming about how that’s elitist.

But none of these comments advance the discussion of the issue—or even address whether there is an issue or not, which is a valid question since another way of representing the finding that 27% of Americans didn’t read a book last year is to state that almost three-fourths of Americans actually did. Which, far from ideal, still isn’t bad.

My thoughts are purely anecdotal and based on my experiences working in bookstores, in publishing, and at a university, and living—for almost the past decade—in cities devoid of really great bookstores. (Even in Rochester when it comes to new books the only places to shop are a few poorly stocked B&N’s and two fairly decent Borders stores.) Anyway, one of the things that I think underlies these proclamations about America’s reading habits (including the NEA Reading at Risk one) is that today’s book culture has become much more about buying instead of about reading and appreciating.

It’s not accessible online, but back in Issue #2 of CONTEXT magazine, author and editor Peter Dimock wrote a fascinating article called “The Presence of Reading.” In this piece, he wrote about his time working in academic marketing at Vintage and the idea that books should be designed a certain way so that customers felt like they had received literary knowledge simply purchasing the book—reading it was totally secondary. Thinking about the Vintage editions of Faulkner that I have at home, I can totally understand what they were shooting for . . .

Although it’s silly and somewhat depressing, a lot of books are sold everyday because they’re titles one “should have,” or that someone heard about on NPR and feels like they should be “part of the conversation.” It’s human nature, and even if I know I’m not going to read a book for years, there are times I buy it, “just to have it around.”

Commercial publishers are in the business to make money, and to market books in such a way that encourages buyers—but not necessarily readers—to pick them up is their prerogative. That doesn’t mean we all have to like it though.

A bigger issue though is the fact that aside from a handful of exception, truly great works of literature—no matter how great the packaging—can’t sustain multimillion dollar companies. Nor can they sustain great bookstores. Popular mainstream books are more appropriate to that role, and these books require a different sort of marketing strategy. No matter how big of fans they are, there aren’t many people who feel that books by authors like John Grisham, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, etc. contain great wisdom, and that simply by owning them you become a better person.

Summer reading, beach books—everyone from the publishers to booksellers to reviewers treats these sorts of books as bound entertainment. Reading a 400-page book can be hours and hours of fun! This underlying sentiment that books are the equivalent of a movie or TV show runs throughout the book business and drives many decisions. Conversations about a title’s sales potential rarely revolve around how intellectually stimulating a book is—it’s all about the plot, the pitch, the way these books could become big screen successes.

This isn’t to say that reading isn’t enjoyable—for someone who spends a considerable amount of time reading novels, I sure hope it is—but reading has some additional benefits that American Idol and Superbad just don’t. What those benefits are is debatable—better moral values, a greater understanding of an individual’s place in the world, exposure to different cultures, an appreciation of art—but it’s definitely there, and to pretend that a book is just as entertaining as TV—and not much else—is simply wrong and has potentially devastating consequences.

If you totally buy into the hype, the ads, the glowing reviews, the 15-foot stacks at the bookstore entrance, and expect something as entertaining as 24 you’re probably going to end up disappointed. Sure, this is a grandiose statement, but in the end, I think I’m right. Lifelong readers love to read because they get something else out of reading that they can’t get elsewhere. And if books are being published-promoted-reviewed-sold for entertainment value alone, new writers will become less and less interesting to people like me.

This also isn’t to say that there isn’t a healthy group of people reading serious literature, or that it isn’t being produced. There always has been and probably always will be a segment of the population seeking out great literature. Books that are doing things unique to the medium, presenting information, viewpoints, etc., in ways that can’t be found on TV. People who love Julio Cortazar’s books.

What I am saying is that that the overall structure of the current situation doesn’t necessarily encourage this type of reading and appreciation of literature. Like with most industries, we’re dialed in to being consumers first, into buying the next hot thing rather than cherishing something beautifully complicated. And regardless of how elitist and/or naive this may sound, I stand by my belief that there’s nothing wrong with wishing more people would read and love high literary works.

There are good and bad things happening in today’s book culture playing into this situation. The fact that book review sections are shrinking is disturbing, if only because it means that the value our culture places in books coverage isn’t a given. Thankfully, the internet is picking up the slack in a lot of ways, making it easier to find out about great books that often don’t get a lot of play because they don’t sound “entertaining.”

I don’t think that the aforementioned studies point to a doomsday scenario in which 20 years from now no one is reading, and I also don’t think that no matter how much Freeman complains or others try and paint an optimistic picture we’re ever going to live in a world where everyone’s read Ulysses. And that’s fine. More than likely, everything’s going to stay exactly the same. Books will exist, there will be the same old conflicts between commerce and art, and the same old results—some readers finding out about great lit through bloggers, reviewers, booksellers, and sharing information about great literature with one another, while the vast majority of readers are all reading the same soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture book that “everyone” is talking about.



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