It’s no secret that reading is suffering these days. Every time you look at a literacy survey or a publishing industry white paper, the numbers are discouraging. If you’re an author, you see the struggle on your royalty statements. Fragmented attention spans, people choosing TV/games/phones over books, busy lives with no free time, lack of funding for libraries, the collapse of bookstores, standardized testing and poor education that doesn’t foster a lifelong interest, parents not reading to kids, publishing’s reluctance to embrace diverse voices, etc. etc., ad infinitum. The reasons for reading’s decline are many and varied. But I’m not ready to put the nail in the coffin. Not yet.
I believe that reading will triumph in the end.
Because it has to. Because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.
(Note that in this piece I’m mostly referring to reading done for pleasure, not school or work-related. I’m also not arguing about how people choose to read. I don’t care if you’re reading on an e-reader, phone, or a paper book. Format doesn’t matter. I’m also not getting into “what counts” as reading. Whether it’s highbrow literature, genre novels, or non-fiction matters not. But I am implying that the types of reading on the decline are the longer works, in book/book-length form. Or at least short stories and novellas, or poetry compilations. Yeah, there’s a lot of reading going on, but Facebook posts, tweets, and texts don’t count.)
I sometimes despair at the fall of reading because, to me, reading is an essential part of being a good citizen of the world. Reading allows you to place yourself in other situations and places in a way that no other media does. It forces you to think like another person or confront information that may disrupt your worldview. Well, that’s if you’re challenging yourself as a reader and not simply reading things that adhere to your current biases.
Reading teaches you to empathize with the thoughts and plights of others. You learn that just because people are different and think differently, they are not inherently better or worse than you. Simply different, looking at the world from a different set of experiences. If we cannot appreciate other people’s experiences and acknowledge them as valid (notice I said appreciate, not accept — no one’s forcing you to adopt another belief system), we are doomed as a species.
And that’s just the surface. If you don’t read, you cannot appreciate history, politics, science, or philosophy. You cannot develop the ability to think critically about information without reading. And critical thinking, the ability to sort out the truth from the lies, will save your butt many times in your lifetime.
Without reading, we fail to develop many of the skills needed to function in the world. Basically, without reading, we’re no different from animals acting purely on instinct, without regard for the concerns or feelings of another animal. All we care about is ourselves and honestly, that’s not a world I want to live in. (Although some days I feel like I’m already there.)
Whenever I’m discouraged by the current plight of reading (and that’s pretty often, these days), I look for the signs of hope. And they’re out there, but you do have to look for them. What do I see?
A resurgence of indie bookstores.
Yes, the big chains have pretty much imploded. Even Barnes and Noble barely sells books anymore, instead stacking their stores with “stuff.” But just when you think the bookstore is dead, a surprising number of indies are rising from the ashes. Some have been here all along, weathering the storms and now rising back to prominence. Others are starting from scratch as book lovers see opportunity. In my area, I’ve even seen a rise in the number of used bookstores. Most went out of business years ago, but now they’re coming back!
The popularity of short fiction, serials, and poetry.
Okay, so reading short pieces isn’t the same as reading a novel or non-fiction book. But at least these shorter forms get people reading. And when even poetry, that sad stepchild of literature that never seems to get any love is having a moment thanks to social media and self-publishing options, you know something interesting is happening.
Engaged book bloggers/reviewers.
The blogging/reviewing communities are awesome. They put up with an awful lot of crap from Amazon (deleted reviews, being told they “can’t” review certain books, etc.) and yet they keep going. They also get a ton of crap from authors who don’t like what’s posted or who want to argue about an opinion, and yet they keep going. Publishers give them crap, too, limiting access to ARCs and blacklisting reviewers who don’t play by their rules. And yet, they keep going. Most bloggers/reviewers are perseverance personified.
Sure, traditional advertising and bestseller lists are still things, but there is a small army of people out there putting up with an awful lot of crap just to make sure that less-heralded books get discovered. They really love their books. That love inspires my belief that all hope is not lost.
Book clubs/discussion groups, online and off, are booming.
People have always started book clubs, but these days they’re everywhere. You can find a celeb with a club to match your reading tastes. Clubs are in libraries, private homes, and bookstores. And the internet has given people without the time or ability to join a physical club the space to have discussions, anyway. Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, Goodreads forums, Slack rooms, Google Hangouts… You name it, you can probably find a way to stick a book club in it.
Amazon is opening bookstores.
Face it, Amazon doesn’t do anything that isn’t profitable. So if they’re opening bookstores, they see money in the venture in the form of book-buying customers.
Audiobooks are having a moment.
Audio used to be the afterthought in publishing. Only if a book saw strong sales everywhere else would it make it to audio. And then it was only because publishers felt they should throw a bone to the visually impaired. But then a weird thing happened. Digital came along and meant that you no longer had to tote CD’s around if you wanted an audiobook. Prices went down accordingly. Life got busy and people wanted books for road trips and commutes. They wanted to be able to listen while they did their chores, exercised, or waited somewhere. Suddenly, audiobooks were both easy to use/access and useful. Now, plenty of people catch up on their reading via headphones.
You can argue until the cows come home about whether or not this is “reading,” but I argue that if you’re concentrating and absorbing the story/information, it counts. Yes, studies show that listening doesn’t activate your brain in quite the same way as reading, but it’s damn close and better than nothing.
Publishers are listening. (Albeit reluctantly.)
After years of complaints about the lack of diversity in publishing, publishers are finally beginning to get there. It’s slow going, but more and more authors from diverse backgrounds are being signed, and works from different perspectives are finally hitting shelves. That’s true in both fiction and non-fiction. And thank heavens for it. Now that people can read books that represent their experiences and interpretations, it’s bringing readers back into the fold.
And it’s a huge boon for creating the next generation of readers. Kids who enjoy reading tend to phase out when they can’t find stories that they can relate to. I believe giving them books that show other kids like them and their experiences will create more readers going forward.
Authors are still writing.
If reading were truly dead, no one would want to be an author. Yet many, many people are still working toward that dream. They’re self-publishing or seeking traditional contracts. They’re still hustling and working three jobs to pay the bills so they can write. That’s not something you do if you believe that reading is dying. Sure, some are having a hard time of it, but the fact that so many still aspire to author-dom is encouraging. They are reading the work of others and hoping for the chance to have their stories heard.
Being a book nerd is cool.
Okay, this may not have anything to do with anything, but it’s my personal thought. Up until recently, being a book nerd wasn’t cool. Liking books was a fast track to bullying. And now? Social media feeds are brimming with books. (Whether or not this leads to increased reading is debatable, but I’m hopeful.) People love to cultivate the image of the book nerd, complete with hipster glasses. Celebrities are running book clubs. Hollywood uses books as the basis for more and more projects. (For better or for worse, but at least people may check out the source material and enjoy it.) Geek is cool and genres like sci-fi and fantasy are more popular than ever. Carrying a book or e-reader isn’t the social stigma it once was.
All this to say… There is hope, if you look for it.
I have to believe that ignorance will not triumph. That the love of a good story well told will not die. That we are given this miracle of language for a reason… to entertain, to communicate, and to empathize with one another. To share experiences across age, race, socio-economic status, and religion. Without reading, we are lost, stuck in our own minds with only our own experiences to guide us. And frankly, I don’t care how great or experienced you think you are, without reading and taking in the experiences of the wider world and learning to see things from other’s perspectives, you’re ignorant. There. I said it.
(Photo courtesy of HiliHo)