Thursday, March 23, 2006

Reading for Fun

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?


Nancy Morse said...

While I think the Oprah book club was useful for getting some people who don't read much to at least pick up a book, for the most part I thought it was a bunch of baloney. After all, Oprah was telling people to read books that she found significant. That's her taste. If the people in her book club or audience are readers, aren't they capable of finding books they like on their own? If she really wants to get people to read, why not start a literacy drive or something? Why not visit schools and talk to young kids about the adventures they'll find in the pages of a book? I'm always a little leery of people who say they read the best books or eat at the best restaurants or drive the best car, or whatever. I admire Oprah for a lot of things, but I think celebrities in general have somewhat vaulted opinions of themselves. Frankly, who cares what Oprah reads? She ought to try reading some romance novels. She might find them as "literary" as her book club selections, but she might also be very surprised by them.

gailbarrett said...

I'd guess that a "gateway" book would be an individual thing (I love that term:). However, I agree totally with what you are saying. I used to teach at a private high school and we had that whole summer reading list debate one year. I suggested including genre fiction on the list because if the kids read a book they really loved, then they would be more likely to continue reading. They'd also eventually be willing to extend their tastes and try other types of books. I argued that it was like exercise. Sure, you can force them to run around the track every day, but if they hate running, they won't form the lifelong habit of exercising. Better to give them a choice of activities so they can find one they love. And shouldn't a school want to create lifelong readers, not just force them to read a classic they might not understand? (Although the majority wouldn't bother reading it; they'd just go online and find a summary to report). I even suggested getting the kids themselves involved, have them make recommendations about books they knew their peers would enjoy. Needless to say, I was voted down...

Nancy Herkness said...

Gail, you couldn't be more right about the strange choices made by schools for summer reading. In the summer before her ninth grade year, my daughter had to read Dreiser's AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. Now why on earth would you torture incipient ninth graders with that book? Do you want them to hate reading for the rest of their lives?

I'm an English major to the bone--loved every minute of literary analysis--but there are some books I have never been able to stomach because I was made to read them in school at too young an age. I'm with you: let's give younger readers some fun stuff so they learn to love reading itself and hopefully develop a life long habit. Save Dreiser for the college years.

N.B. Incoming ninth graders are no longer forced to slog through AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. The English teachers finally rose up in protest and got it removed from the required reading list, bless their hearts!

Shanna Swendson said...

Gym class is a good analogy. If gym class is set up so that it's like torture, is there any wonder that Americans tend to be sedentary as adults? We don't learn positive associations from physical activity unless we get them from other places. Exercise becomes associated in our brains with the humiliation of changing clothes in front of strangers, boring exercise, extra laps as punishment, and being ridiculed if we don't pick up skills like shooting baskets or spiking volleyballs. You quit doing that stuff the moment they're no longer making you do it.

It would be nice if school English classes at least touched on genre fiction and maybe analyzing it from a reading perspective -- learn what elements you can expect in each genre, learn about things like plot and characterization in addition to metaphor and theme. That's the kind of education from those classes that students would really carry through life.

When I was a freshman in high school, the book we read for the year was about a teenager dying of a brain tumor. Sophomore year, we read Steinbeck's THE PEARL, about a pearl fisherman who finds an incredibly wonderful pearl that brings misfortune on his family (cheery stuff). We were supposed to read THE SCARLET LETTER in junior year, but some of us revolted and were able to convince the teacher to let us read FAHRENHEIT 451 instead (so we got a little science fiction -- and the class really got into it). Senior year it was A TALE OF TWO CITIES, which I loved, but again, lots of death and injustice.

I can see how someone with that education who only got exposed to books through school would come away with the idea that reading is boring and depressing. Then if one of those people decided to give it a try again and picked up the recommendation of a certain famous talk show host, they might be scared away from reading for life.

Sharon Page said...

I knew many people in high school who insisted they hated to read until someone gave them a genre book and then they became addicted. Since reading is a leisure time activity, it's got to be natural to gravitate to something you enjoy doing. Recently I was doing an exercise on author branding for a publicity course and had to name three things I thought of when given an author's name. Inevitably, it was their characters I thought of first. So I thought the reading group questions you suggested were perfect, Shanna. Actually I hadn't heard of the "one city, one book" program. Must be intriguing to see everyone reading the same book on the daily commute.

Terry Z McDermid said...

I've been interested in the high school reading debate since I read this great book by an English teacher, Mary Leonhardt: Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don't. We corresponded for a while, since I wrote a resource text for elementary teachers using genres to teach reading (including romance; hard to find a lot of titles at that time for young readers but I tried!). Our premise was that you have to get kids to read -- to be reading adults. As a teacher, I provide lots of books and hope they pick up on how wonderful reading is (and that it's not killed later by well-intentioned but misguided adults).

Fortunately, my mom and dad just encouraged us to be readers. They left classics out for us or gave them as gifts but we also read a lot of the current favorites: science fictions, mysteries, gothics. My mom always had the Reader's Digest condensed books and I loved reading through those. And I can remember her telling a neighbor that it was fine, my sister was reading Nancy Drew, 'she was reading!'

Thank goodness for Harry Potter books -- they may save a whole generation!

Gail Dayton said...

Even manga and comic books. I had cousins who, as banker's kids, had lots more spending money than I did--the college teacher's kid, and they spent some of that money on comics. I would scour their house every week (they lived near my brother's and my piano teacher, so when one of us was at lessons, the rest of us would hang out with the cousins) for comics I hadn't read and had a great time with Spiderman and Batman and Daredevil and--well, I didn't like Superman as much, but I read them, because I read everything I could get my greedy little hands on.

Teresa Bodwell said...

You make a good point. I remember reading for pleasure as a kid and I still love escaping the stress of everyday life with a good book. The key to a great fun read is a book that helps the reader create a movie in her head. Unlike the two-dimensional films on the silver screen--those movies of the imagination feel, smell and sound real. (Well, films these days do have the sound right, usually, but it is hard to get the rest of life in two dimensions). I recently read Brenda Novak's EVERY WAKING MOMENT. That book definitely came alive for me.