Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Readers - An Endangered Species

The "sort of" recent news report that only one in four persons had read a book of any kind during the past year came as no surprise to me, but it was still very disheartening.

No wonder publishing houses are always teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and prefer to publish book after book after book from the “big name” authors, authors with an established following and track record, rather than take a chance on an unknown no matter how sparkling and fresh and original his or her manuscript may be. No wonder the only way some unpublished writers can get their manuscript read is to have a “connection” – to know another (preferably big name) – author or an agent or anyone connected to the publishing world who can give that writer a decent letter of recommendation.

And really, can you blame the publishing houses? The cost of publishing a hardcover edition of a book is very high, and the owners of publishing houses have bills to pay and food to buy just you and I. They have to survive, and I’m glad they do. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have any books to read at all.

Readers, too, must surely feel the brunt this lack of reading is causing. I know I often finish what I consider to have been a wonderful book only to have no one with whom to discuss it. And I love discussing books, both the ones I loved and the ones I didn’t love so very much. No matter how I felt about a book, I gain more from having read it if I can discuss what I consider its merits and shortcomings with other readers. (The subject of an entry to come.)

Reading, of course, is an intensely private affair. Each reader brings his or her own unique experiences and lifestyle to his reading experience and because of this, each reader takes away something different. While it’s nice to read books in privacy and peaceful seclusion, once the book is finished, most readers become much more social beings. If you’re like me, once you’ve finished a book, you gain tremendous insight into its more subtle aspects by discussing it with a group. In fact, most readers long to discuss the books they’ve read with others.

More and more people are forming reading groups in an attempt to overcome the literary isolation most of us face. But even forming a book group can be difficult. People in rural communities will probably find it more difficult to form a reading group than those in large cities. Even in large cities, you can run into problems. If you only read highly literary fiction, for example, or sci-fi/fantasy, it might be hard to find enough people with the same taste to form a group. If the going gets too rough, and you really can’t stand being a solitary reader, you might want to consider widening your own tastes.

Literary isolationism is, unfortunately, increasing year by year. How can we, as avid and concerned readers, help to reverse this sad trend and whose responsibility is it, ultimately, to ensure that future generations will love to read as much as we do?

I don’t know about you, but I developed a love for books and reading at home, before I ever attended school, even before kindergarten. The members of my family were readers and they did everything they could to foster my interest in books, including reading to me, buying me books, and taking me to the library and bookstores. I’ve always considered myself so lucky they did because unfortunately, teachers let me (and my fellow classmates) down in this respect. The only book I can remember reading (or being assigned to read) in high school was Quo Vadis. I had a lot of catching up to do.

Today, many parents seem more intent on parking their children in front of the television or giving them latest video game, than reading to them or taking them to a library or bookstore. And this is such a shame. Children love good stories. Young children especially adore books with brightly colored, well-drawn illustrations. Their interest in books can be captured so early and so easily, yet sadly, so often, it just isn’t.

Teachers, like parents, need to be more aware of the needs of the students under their care, and reading, make no mistake, is a need. Sure, some people don’t like it, but everyone, I think has a need for stories in their lives. Oral storytelling, as a tradition, existed long before published books did. Sometimes I think the propensity of some young people today to tell the most outrageous lies stems from a lack of stories in their lives, not a surfeit. Teachers, especially teachers of younger students, should make sure fiction reading is a part of the regular curriculum. Surely, no young student of five or six is going to groan more at the prospect of an exciting story than he will at the prospect of a math lesson.

If there’s a young person in your life, give him or her books for birthdays, books for graduation, and books for Christmas. Give him or her books just because you love him. They needn’t be novels. Some members of my family are voracious readers, but they read memoirs, non-fiction, or technical books. The important thing is, they’re reading and they’re loving it. Books are an integral part of their lives.

As an avid reader and as one who cherishes the books she owns, I want to see more truly great books published, not fewer. I want my favorite authors to feel it’s worth their while to keep on writing books, not give up due to a lack of readership or large advances. And, I want to share these books with my fellow readers.

Readers have become an endangered species, and all of us need to take responsibility to ensure than we don’t one day face extinction. Buy books for the children in your life. Foster their innate love for stories and let them know this need in them can be fulfilled throughout their life. Take the time to get to know what the reading tastes of the people you love are, or might be, then get those people interested in books. Instead of going on a date to a movie, try going on a date to a bookstore/cafe once in awhile. If you’re a parent, do more than just buy books for your children. Read to them, or discuss the book with them after they've read it. Insist that the reading and discussion of books be a part of your child’s classroom activities. Join or start a book group, either online or “in real life.” Tell people about this literary blog and other literary blogs you find interesting.

Books and reading have the power to change lives and with the power to change lives comes the power to change the world.

No comments: