“Those who don’t read good books have no advantage over those who can’t.”
If you’ve spent any amount of time around the writing/literary community over the past few years, you’ve undoubtedly come across the issue of declining readership. The sad truth is that in Western Culture fewer and fewer people are reading for pleasure. Some reports have more than fifty percent of American adults admitting they have not read a book that was not required for school or work since high school. The statistics are nearly as bad for the college educated (though one would think, as a group, they would be bigger readers than the general public. Guess not).
As I write this post, the majority of readers in the United States are women and fifty years old or older.
This fact should be of great concern to all writers. We depend on readers for an audience. If our readers continue to grow old and die, who will read our work? Who will buy our books?
So what is going on? Why are so few young people reading? Or more accurately phrased, why are so much fewer young people reading now than in times past? What can we, as writers and members of the literary community, do about it?
Part of the problem, in my humble opinion, is that young people, especially those who have grown up in the last ten to twenty years, have been inundated with a myriad of distractions taking them away from books and reading. In the sixties and seventies, when I and my contemporaries grew up, the primary entertainment sources (other than reading) were three or four channels of broadcast television, evening and weekend movies, sports, and that was about it. Cable television came around when I was in high school, but it was still mostly old re-runs. Broadcast television was all soap operas and game shows until prime time (Dad had control of the channel anyway).
Today, young people have more than 200 channels of satellite or cable television, the unlimited possibilities of the internet, video game consoles, and smart phone technology. They are drowning in stimuli. Their attention spans are getting shorter and their expectations of instant gratification are growing. Reading demands the opposite: long attention spans and the ability or willingness to delay gratification for the length of the book.
Many are also more apt to expect something to entertain them (a movie, video game, website) than to expect to entertain themselves. And face it, reading is not a passive form of entertainment. It requires a certain amount of involvement from the reader. Not like a movie, which only requires that you sit there and pay some attention.
It is also quite hard to read a novel when your buddies are sending you text messages every couple of minutes.
The other issue I see causing the decline in young readership is a strong cultural bias against reading. The message our culture pushes especially to boys and young men is that people who read books for fun are dorks and geeks. The “cool” guys, the ones who are popular, especially with the girls, are not home reading Moby Dick. They are the football players, the life of the party, the ones with the fast cars.
Think of the most popular teen movies of the recent past: Animal House, the American Pie franchise, Clueless and countless others paint the desirable person, the hero, as a person of action, often under-educated, or even hating education. These are the people our boys, especially around puberty, want to be like. They don’t want to be the dorky slob sitting at home Friday night alone with a good book. They want to be the quarterback all the girls admire.
So what can we do to fight or overcome these issues?
First and most important, we must create the best, most entertaining writing possible. It will do no good to persuade young people to pick up a book if the book isn’t very good. So we all need to write and publish the best work we possibly can.
Second, we can provide the young people in our lives a good example. Nothing makes a young person want to do something—anything—than seeing someone they admire doing it. If you want young people to read, make sure they see you reading and see it often. Don’t go back into your room to read in bed. Read in the living room; read in the kitchen. Read in the park. Read in public, where everyone can see you. Be seen with a book in your hands.
Last, is much more difficult. It involves changing the culture (or at least what it seems to value). I’m not entirely sure how to do that other than by using our abilities as writers to counter the message that reading is for wimps. Perhaps, as consumers we could also influence the companies and producers who repeat these messages. But I am less confident of that method. The people in charge of such things are only interested in whether a project will make money and little else.
But we can influence our own little corner of the culture. We can work our magic on those who are close to us and maybe, little by little, person by person, we can reverse the trend of fewer and fewer readers.