My city is doing one of those "One City, One Book" things where they try to get people excited about reading by encouraging everyone in the city to read a particular book, and then participate in online and real-life discussions of it. The book they chose was Life of Pi. It's not the kind of thing I usually read, but I did enjoy it. There were some passages so remarkable that I wished I had someone around to read them out loud to (my houseplants have no appreciation for good literature). But I couldn't help but think as I was reading it that most of the projects and activities done to encourage adults to read are taking the entirely wrong approach. They've forgotten about reading for fun.
Think about the bookclub headed by a particularly famous talk show host and copied by various other programs, or about any of these "let's all read the same book" programs. You generally read a serious book full of layered metaphors. The book is often about cheery topics like death and injustice. Then you're asked questions about the book. You have to analyze it and explain what it really meant, what the author was saying about the state of the world. What does that sound like? It reminds me of high school English classes, which are often what turn people off of reading in the first place. Unless you come from a home where reading for fun is encouraged or unless you have a teacher who really goes above and beyond, you're going to come out of those classes sure that reading is no fun. The curriculum is full of books about death and injustice, which you then have to analyze to death (and as an author looking back at those years, I find a lot of that analysis highly amusing. It's entirely possible that those authors didn't mean anything and that the symbol you're analyzing was the product of an overactive subconscious). I think I'm probably a pretty advanced reader (considering I write books), but I took one look at the discussion questions about Life of Pi posted on the library web site and ran screaming. The questions almost ruined the book for me. They destroyed the magic.
I don't know if it's literary snobbery or just the feeling that if you're only going to get someone to read one book, you'd better make it worthwhile, but it seems to me that the way to get people into reading is to show them that reading can be fun. I know, it's a radical concept! You don't throw someone who hasn't read a book since high school in the literary deep end and expect them to enjoy the experience. Maybe you should start with the "gateway drugs" of reading -- romance, chick lit, mystery. Look for books that make people lose track of time, and instead of getting people to talk about theme and metaphor, ask them if they liked the characters, if they thought the hero and heroine belonged together, if they solved the mystery before the detective did. Get people hooked and wanting to read more, and maybe someday they'll want to delve into more challenging things, but even if they don't, they're reading, and that's wonderful.
I don't know how many people have told me that reading my book got them back into reading in a way they hadn't enjoyed since they were kids. One friend teases me that I've ruined his wife. She read my book, had fun with it, then went out looking for other fun books to read. She went from being a busy mom who didn't make time to read to being a woman who tries to set aside time to read and relax. I can't help but think that this will also have an impact on her little boy, who will now grow up watching his mom reading and going to the bookstore with her.
Kelly Ripa was on the right track with her TV bookclub when she chose fun, entertaining books. We need more celebrities willing to get over the need to make themselves appear intellectual who can recommend fun books to fans willing to follow their every move. Maybe libraries could sponsor romance reading groups for moms that meet while kids are in story hour. That would be the way to get new readers who might keep coming back for more.
Can anyone think of some sure-fire "gateway drug" books that would be great to recommend to reluctant adult readers?