Tuesday, June 13, 2006

READING IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD?

Apparently so. I came to this conclusion the other day when I was one of five authors participating in a group signing at a local town fair. The town, which will remain nameless, is an affluent commuter suburb. Many of the residents work in Manhattan; most have at least an undergraduate degree. So I was dumbstruck when a certain percentage of the adults who stopped by our table and were asked if they’d like to read a good book answered with, “I don’t read.”

They DON’T READ? EVER? I’d expect an answer like that from a surly teenager plugged simultaneously into his Game Boy and Ipod. But college educated adults living in an upscale community? All right, maybe they meant they don’t read romance. I can accept that as much as I’d wish otherwise. But that wasn’t the case. Neither was it that they only read non-fiction (although a few did admit to that with an air that told you without a doubt that fiction -- any fiction -- was beneath them.) No, most who admitted to not reading meant THEY DON’T READ. As in NOTHING. Not books. Not magazines. Not newspapers.

And what amazed me the most was that they admitted this to a total stranger! I’d think that any adult who didn’t read would keep that admission buried deep underneath the widescreen TV, not voice it with a sense of pride. But no, they looked down their noses, their voices filled with disdain, as they proclaimed, “I DON’T READ.” As if reading were a bad thing, something to be avoided at all costs. As if we authors were the enemy, trying to infect them with printed and bound versions of some lethal strain of bird flu.

Now the truth is that the five of us had quite a successful day, selling a few dozen books and passing out promotional literature to many interested people. We’re not complaining. Just mystified by the responses of some who wandered past our table. After all, none of us could possibly imagine living a life devoid of the pleasures of the written word.

10 comments:

Nancy Morse said...

These people actually do read every day. At work they read reports, memos, e-mail, etc. At home they read their kids' report cards, review homework, etc. They read the mail, street signs, the prices at the supermarket. And except for the ones who are snoring, putting on makeup or talking on their cell phones, you can bet they're reading the newspaper on their morning commute into the city. For nearly 30 years I commuted into Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad and there they were with their newspapers (usually the NY Time folded in that way that professional newspaper-readers do). What they don't do, however, is read for pleasure, and isn't that sad? So what, they don't have the time? I have found that if you really want to do something, you somehow find the time for it. So let them have their too-busy lives without books. It's their loss. On the other hand, I also know people who don't read newspapers, or watch or listen to the news. These are the ones who usually have very strong opinions on just about everything. Where do they get the information on which to base their opinions, I wonder. Granted, there's so much awful stuff going on in the world and that may be the reason they shy away from the news, but isn't that the perfect reason to read a book and escape?

LaraRios said...

Those peoples' comments don't suprise me. Sadly, I know many people who don't read. Like you, I think to myself, how can they go through life not reading, never mentally escaping to other worlds, trying on new experiences, never learning something new from a good non-fiction book? I think they're missing out.

But thank goodness for all the readers out there. Glad you book signing went well!

Ann Roth said...

I hope you're right, Nancy. This is scary. I live in the Seattle area, where people would rather die than admit they don't read. So Lois' post startled me.

Giving those poor souls the benefit of the doubt, ould it be they didn't want to spend money on books but were too polite to say so? But reading Lara's post, maybe not.

If they don't read (okay, Nancy, maybe the DO read sometimes), they are to be pitied.

At least you sold books. Lois.

Allison Brennan said...

I know a lot of people who only read non-fiction. I worked with a guy (he's brilliant and top in his field) who reads oodles of NF, Tom Clancy, Stephen Coontz . . . and me ;) That's it on the fiction.

My husband reads a lot of NF, Louie L'Amour, a few other westerns I picked out for him, and nothing else. Okay, he reads my books, too, but that doesn't count.

My best friend's husband only reads Christopher Moore and fantasy, like Terry Brooks.

So I am surprised that someone would say--in public!--that they don't read.

Maybe they were bored to death in high school . . .

gailbarrett said...

Yes, I think that they mean that they don't read fiction. I've come across a lot of people like that lately. It could be that they just never enjoyed fiction, perhaps as a result of being forced to read boring things in school. As a former high school teacher, I used to argue with my colleagues that it was more important to get the kids hooked on reading by letting them choose books they liked for the summer reader list rather than forcing them to read the so-called classics that were "good for them." Unfortunately, most teachers didn't agree with me. And if kids think fiction is long, boring and out-of-date, then I can't say I blame them for not reading later on.

Heather said...

Sadly, I'm not surprised.

There was an article in yesterday's Publisher's Weekly enewsletter about reading being on the decline, that kids who are voracious readers at a young age are hardly reading at all once into their teens. The report cites parents as one reason for the decline, stating that only 21% of parents are frequent readers. Another reason for the decline is failure to help kids find books they like.

We are raising a generation of non-readers, which shouldn't come as a surprise considering how much the TV is on in most households today, not to mention video games. Though we had Atari when we were growing up, we weren't allowed to sit inside all summer in front of that or the TV either one, no matter how hot it was outside.

A friend's family is a prime example of adults as poor role models. I've never seen her husband read so much as a newspaper, and she hardly ever reads anything but the Sunday paper. Their TV goes on as soon as they're up in the morning, back on after work/school and doesn't get turned off until the parents go to bed.

The kids do their homework in the living room in front of the TV where they are easily distracted, including the half hour they are supposed to read for school. Rather than turn the TV off and make it a family event, she sits and screams at them to stop watching TV and get their reading done, or threatens to add time on.

Is it any wonder kids are reading less as they get older and becoming a generation of couch potatoes with such role models?

Another friend and I have both suggested she try turning off the TV and reading with them, but she whines about not wanting to miss her programs. When the children have been at my house or another friend's, we have found the kids are more likely to read - and without complaint! - when we 1) turn off the TV and radio and 2) read with them.

As Mark Twain said, the only thing worse than a man who can't read is the man who doesn't read.

Allison Brennan said...

Twain was right on the money about so many things ;)

Part of it is parents, but part of it is the kids themselves and their personalities. Trust me when I say I have thousands of books and I read all the time. I gave up virtually all television to write. I've read to my kids since they were infants. Yet my oldest (12) treats reading as a chore (though I have been able to find some books she's liked)--essentially, she doesn't like to read because it's solitary and she's afraid she's going to miss out on something. This is not me!

My second daughter (10) reads constantly, books far older than her age, loves historical books (geared toward YA readers)--I bought her the first three SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS when she was 8 and she devoured them--read them over her Christmas break. For her 9th birthday I bought her the rest and she read one every weekend.

THE SECRET GARDEN was required reading in my oldest's 6th grade class; she hated it and never finished it (skimming). My other daughter read it last summer (at 9) and loved it.

Yasser said...

maybe these people were just shy to admit they read only to discover that you and your friends have such a broader literature background than themselves...

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

I am shocked of the people who "DON'T READ." I found that reading is a comfort and also lubricates the brain. After my experiences with disease, I have found that I am unable to read as often and that it is hard to engage is some types of stories. But, when I read I feel my brain coming back on-line.

In short, reading is healthy exercise for the brain.

Alesia said...

I recently had the exact same experience! I was at a signing with a group of mystery authors, and we had many people who said "I don't read mysteries" but the shock to me were the people IN A BOOKSTORE who said "I don't read."
They were just there for the coffee.
sigh.