I keep hearing about the sad state of reading in this country. Publishers bemoan a shrinking audience. Writers tremble at the stats. An NEA report from 2004 paints a bleak picture.
Yet, publishers continue to produce more and more books. Whole stadiums of people call themselves writers now and assume they’ll have readers someday. The NEA report was printed rather than simplified into an animated cartoon form.
All this wailing and knuckle-gnashing is getting tiresome. In my small corner of experience, the facts don’t mesh with the groans.
During the last month, I’ve had more than 13 public events. These booksignings, public presentations, conventions and bookclubs have brought me into stores, airports, private homes, restaurants and hotels. You know what? People are, indeed, reading for pleasure. They’re doing it a lot. Even in little ol’ New Mexico, which often stands with its face turned to the corner when it comes to illiteracy, people read.
Lest you think it’s only old farts who are whipping out books, let me reassure you that I’ve talked fiction with twenty-somethings and high school students. At the Tony Hillerman Writers’ Conference a few weeks ago, a young woman walked up to me with an Ipod in her hand.
I asked what she was listening to.
"I download books from the internet. Why would I bother with music when there’s so much good literature out there?" she said.
I thought I was hallucinating.
Is everyone else in the literary world encountering a far different subset of our culture? Why all the rending of clothes? The bloomers in a dither? The Cassandra predictions about the end of the written word?
Sure, my empirical samples may be small, but it’s not like I go out looking for them. I just notice a helluvalot of people reading books and magazines.
To be fair, I do believe there are factors that threaten reading as we know it. In my kids’ classes, teachers use videos and movies far more than they did when I was a girl. The allure of television and computer games at home has increased. Indeed, in our family, we limit our kids’ TV and computer playtime tremendously. They have no choice but to read.
Teenagers are busier and more scheduled than they used to be, too. They’ve also got a far broader range of communication choices than even a generation ago. Sure, they read books for school, but many have lives so full that it’s difficult to slow down enough to read anything longer than a cereal box.
Still, I’m not sure that this means these kids won’t turn into readers.
A little known fact: I hated reading until I was sixteen and desperate for English while living in France. It was there that I finally learned that books could be pleasures rather than obligations. Who knows? If I hadn’t been hungry for my native language then, would I be a reader today?
Last Friday, I went to our public library and spoke with one of my favorite people there. Gail Miller is a librarian and wife of John J. Miller. She’s also a YA reader for a NY publisher. I asked her if she thought people are reading less nowadays.
"Not substantially," she said, leading me to a book she adored and wanted me to check out. "And, people who read are actually reading more."
She should know.
I think it may be true that reading runs the risk of obsolescence someday. . . though I don’t see much evidence of it myself. As a culture, we may need to figure out ways to ensure that children and teens have the time, quiet and space to foster good reading habits.
However . . . rather than add that worry to my already full mind and heart, I’ll get back to writing for the readers who do read. I expect their numbers to be strong for a long, long time.