Thursday, June 12, 2008

Who says we're not reading?

I belong to a group of women writers. Once a month, we meet at someone's house to eat, drink wine, and talk about "the craft." We try not to discuss "the industry," but inevitably, the talk turns to marketing and publishing, and how horrible the situation is. (Then we drink more wine.) This past Sunday, when the talk turned to the supposedly dire state of the publishing industry, someone in the group announced, "No one reads anymore!" Cue chorus of agreement.

But I disagree. While I can understand where my fellow (fella?) writers are coming from, I think people are reading. How else do you explain the popularity of book groups, and conferences like Book Group Expo dedicated specifically to people in book groups? How do you explain the fact that every week, I get an invitation to a new book-related social networking site? I now have my lists on GoodReads and Shelfari, to give a few examples; I've gotten to the point where I can't even keep my virtual bookshelves up to date.

There's something else I wanted to tell my writers' group. From the time our children were blastocysts, almost every mother I know has been inundated with the importance of reading to her child. My niece has belonged to a book-of-the-month club since she was about 3 (she even picked out her own books). I could swear to you that I remember hearing a suggestion that I read to my son while he was in the womb as a way to get him used to the sound. I didn't do that--although I was reading The Apple's Bruise by Lisa Glatt when my water broke--but I did read to him from about the time he was born.

Here he is thumbing through his book collection at 15 months, looking for the good parts:

He's now almost 3, and yes, I was thrilled beyond words when one of his preschool teachers termed him "the class bookworm." He also likes to watch trains on YouTube, but he still loves his books. I have now read Where's the Poop more times than I would like to count.

Granted, I will admit that I'm part of an overly educated demographic. You could call our kids "Generation 529," so concerned are we about getting our kids into (and being able to pay for) good colleges. When I lived in San Francisco, I belonged to a mothers' group where women were frantic about getting on preschool lists before their children were actually born. Every family I know has shelves of children's books in their home. I realize, of course, that many families are not so fortunate.

There seems to be a disconnect between the dire predictions about American education, and the fact that many colleges have to turn away qualified applicants. Stanford received 24,000 applications for its Class of 2011--a record high (but accepted 10.3%--a record low). A "a significant fraction" of those accepted, says President John Hennessy, are "prepared to do Stanford-caliber study." Test scores and GPAs are higher than ever.

How can that be, if no one's reading? I'm curious to know what you think. Like I said, I realize that I'm part of a particular demographic, and that the picture isn't so rosy for a large segment of the population. How can we instill a love of reading in all children, regardless of income? And I don't think the answer is more computers in schools or access to the Internet. But we shouldn't throw up our hands and say "no one is reading," either.

It's not going to stop writers from writing, anyway.

1 comment:

Paul Charles said...

So many ideas! Ok, this is a UK writer's perspective. People are reading, but too many of them are reading the tabloid autobiography that wins a 7-figure advance and then sells, literally, 7 copies. This takes money from fiction writers and those who spend a lifetime practicing a craft. So sales in the UK are at an all time high, but these sales are narrowly on a number of 'low brow' stocking fillers. So even using economics doesn't work, because I think you are referring (at least implicitly) to the 'quality' of readers and not just the sheer amount of cash they spend on books.

College in the UK is largely free, but the middle classes are starting to spend more money on secondary (high school) private education as there is a (wrong) widely held belief that our state schools are all bad.

I read yesterday that half of the top ten Japanese novels were WRITTEN (not read) on mobile phones! I am afraid of this number and what it say about the future of the novel in Asia at least.

But never mind who reads, so many people write these days. Not only the blogo-pod-casto-sphere but commenting on news sites like the BBC and newspapers, and emailing TV shows is popular.

My conclusion is that who reads and what they read, and how they read it (I get through two unabridged audiobooks a month on top of my 'real' reading) is changing in many ways, and very quickly. But it's not all bad. Top writers will be ahead of the curve in spotting the next new market.