Friday, January 9, 2015

Just read

On the news that Mark Zuckerberg is aiming to read at least 26 books in 2015, I've been thinking about what we need to do to get people to read more. In the book world, we often hear that young people never read anymore because they're too busy taking selfies and sexting but I don't think this is true. At least not wholly true.

Reading has always been a niche activity (reading fiction at least) but one thing I would say about younger people is that they tend to read more of the same writers. What I mean is that people under, say, 30-35, grew up in a world where celebrity culture was the norm so these readers are often drawn to celebrity writers (by this I don't necessarily mean celebrities who happen to write but writers who are famous for being writers). I'm often surprised when a young person recommends a writer or book to me how much uniformity there is in the names they suggest. In one way this is normal: people of a particular generation are likely to be drawn to writers that speak to their hangups, interests, fears, insecurities, senses of humour, etc. But the down side to this is that there seems to be less room for idiosyncratic reading among younger people.

When I was in my early twenties (I'm in my early 40s now), we passed around books which were quirky (Tom Robbins, Hanif Kureishi) or spoke to specific sub-groups (Edmund White, Rita Mae Brown) or writers that came from our area (Tom Spanbauer, Jack London) or which spoke to our specific sensibilities (Milan Kundera, Barbara Kingsolver). It wasn't the same 10 writers being talked about at the same time (which is the way it is now).

Though I'm not too optimistic that Zuckerberg will choose "good" books, his reading pledge is important in that it makes reading into something people should WANT to do. We have to have leaders and innovators stress the importance of reading. We have to create the social message that reading makes one a more interesting, complex person. We have to broaden the appeal of books so that young people realize that reading can be a highly individualized activity that doesn't have to adhere to the"trends" in the same way everything else does.

I often hear from people I know: "Oh, I'm just too busy to read," but I never believe this. Everyone is
too busy. Or most everyone. Reading has to be made into something of a priority:  on the Metro I always want to scream when I see 25 people in my Metro car reading the daily subway rag which is almost full of stories we've already read online the day before and, when not those pieces, full of vapid & banal advice columns.Or when I see people playing mindless video games.

(It's unfair of me to be so judgmental, I realize: I sometimes just want to tune out the world when coming home from work, especially this time of year after a long day. Sometimes I just can't read anymore after reading all day long, I also have a mindless video game on my phone.)

The thing is, we can't do everything: we can't see every TV show and read every news story and play all the games everyone is talking about, plus keep up with FB and Twitter and Instagram. We have to make choices about what's important. And reading always adds more to my life than giving in to all the chatter that we're constantly bombarded with. But, yes, I give in and deal with the chatter: I have all the accounts that everyone else has. I waste time on FB and other time sucks despite myself.

But I read a lot. For me it's realizing that reading doesn't have to be something I do when I have a free hour and can sit in peace in my favorite chair. Rare is it the person who can read that way anymore. Instead I keep a book with me at all times: I read on the subway, I read standing in line at the supermarket, I read on my lunch hour, I read while I let the dog play in the park (though not at this time of year). I read in the bath. I give myself one hour on the weekends to read in a cafe near my house. I read paper books, I read on my phone, I read via Audible (listen), I read on my iPad (not that often, though). I read at night in bed. (Though usually that's my TV time.) And, no, I don't spend all my free time reading. It's just one thing I do regularly because I make it a priority.

By making reading something to aspire to, people will make it an effort. I'm a big believer that people who read (novels, magazines, history, non-fiction, even CRAP books!) are more interesting, easier to talk to, and more intelligent.

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