Thursday, July 08, 2004

Everything Except the Reading Part

Report shows big drop in reading

I heard something about this on Paul Harvey's show while I was in Subway this afternoon, and I managed to find an article about it online. Basically, what it boils down to is this: even among people who can read, a whole lot of people don't read. The report says that only 57% of Americans are readers.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine told me that she would prefer to read a textbook or something like that over a work of fiction. I was utterly shocked by that, and literally speechless for a moment. It's something I couldn't imagine, but apparently the sentiment isn't that uncommon. Only 47% of the population reads fiction.

That in itself is an alarming trend for me. I'm such an avid reader, I can't imagine what it must be like to go without it. Also, as I mention from time to time, I'm a writer of fiction myself, with hopes of eventually being published--although my hopes have diminished somewhat, I'd still love to make it a career. If people aren't reading, though, it becomes even less likely. There has to be a market, after all.

All of this is one reason I was so enthusiastic about the Harry Potter phenomenon, even before I had read any of the books myself. I thought it was great that there was so much excitement over a series of books. It's introducing the younger generation to the joys of reading, and I also think it has brought a number of adults back to reading as well. Not enough, apparently, but every little bit helps. The same goes for Oprah Winfrey's book club. If it gets people to read, I'm all for it.

I'm sure there are plenty of people who will hear about this report and pass its findings off as no big deal. After all, why does it matter if people are reading or not? They're obviously getting elsewhere whatever it is that people get from books. I would disagree with this assessment, and I've got three reasons right off the top of my head.

1) Imagination. Sure, in the cases of a lot of books, you can just wait for the movie to come out and go see that instead. It's not the same, though. Reading a book forces a person to come up with their own images of the characters, settings, and events within, instead of seeing someone else's depiction. This fosters imagination and creativity, both of which sometimes seem to be lacking in today's society. Without these things, life can be pretty dry and stagnant. America used to be known for ingenuity and creativity, but it doesn't seem like that's the case anymore. Reading can help bring that back.

2) Knowledge. I'm pretty good at Jeopardy! and other trivia games, and it's almost entirely because of how much I read. You learn things all the time when you read, even from fiction. It seeps in, and it often sticks because you're not trying to learn. Being good at trivia games is no big deal, but having broad general knowledge definitely comes in handy.

3) Writing skills. Reading grants a person a familiarity with English in its written form, and that will greatly improve their own writing skills. I'm certain that the main reason my own grammar and writing is so technically sound is because I read a lot as I grew up, and continue to do so. I see a lot of bad writing on a daily basis, and it drives me crazy. The main point of writing is communication of ideas, but ideas get lost in bad writing. Even someone who doesn't write for a living per se needs to be able to effectively communicate. For a society where e-mail is one of the most common forms of communication, the ability to write well is highly underrated and undervalued.

The article lists the internet as one reason for the decline in reading, and I have to say that's at least partially unfair. After all, e-mail and the web are highly dependent on the written word, so that's a form of reading in itself. However, a lot of internet text is unedited and sloppy, and that's not exclusive to message boards and personal sites.

Here's my suggestion: READ, dammit! Read anything, even if it's something lame like Chicken Soup for the Soul, Who Moved My Cheese?, or some horrible romance novel. If you're looking for something better, check out my reading page for some recommendations, and feel free to e-mail me with questions about any of the books listed on there. If you have kids, read to them! Don't stop with children's books, either--read poetry to them, and let them learn to love the language. If they're old enough, have them read to you. Also, encourage them to read on their own. Fiction, history, biographies--whatever they're interested in. If it becomes a part of their routine, it's something you'll never regret.

Check out a used book store. Get books at garage sales. Borrow them from friends. Go to the library. Download e-books. Subscribe to a literary magazine. Join a reading club. The books are out there. Go get them!

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