Friday, August 24, 2007

'Cos I ain't got no interest in them

One of the first things I read this morning was an article that Leila at Bookshelves of Doom pointed me to that highlighted the dismal results of an AP poll about American reading habits. Twenty-seven percent of adults surveyed, the poll revealed, hadn't read a book in the past year, and the median number of books read overall was four (though the figure jumped to seven when non-readers were excluded). Now, for those of us who love and/or make our living from books, those are unquestionably depressing figures. Though we can take heart from learning the unsurprising news that Democrats and liberals read more than Republicans and conservatives, we also have to worry that older folks read more books than younger people--not a good sign for the future.

But at the same time, it's important to remember that reading has always fought an uphill battle--against illiteracy, poverty, and lack of time long ago, and against long commutes, big-screen TVs, and video games today. Just as there have always been those of us to whom reading is a central part of life, there have also been those who couldn't or wouldn't open a book.

While I do think reading, any sort of reading, is deeply valuable, I've never been a Cynthia-Ozick-style literature-as-medicine sort: I want people reading because they want to read, because they think there may be something in a novel that expands on the movie version, because they're curious about what Grandpa saw in the war, or because Johnny Damon has great hair. Reading that is clearly pitched as a form of self-improvement can too quickly become reading as punishment--an unlikely recipe for the sort of quiet, contemplative inwardness that reading generates at its best. That's not saying that we should be complacent, especially if we hope to make a living from books in thirty years, but at the same time we have to be realistic about the competition for attention that books face--and we can't delude ourselves into thinking that there was ever a golden age when everyone was reading serious books.

I was thinking about all this on the train this morning when I came across a brief note about reading habits in David Kynaston's Austerity Britain. Kynaston reports the results of research in 1947 into reading habits by the government-sponsored public opinion survey group Mass-Observation (an unparalleled source of detailed information about British life in the 1940s). He opens with a result that reading advocates would be happy to elicit today:
"Reading" was given as the favourite hobby by three in ten of the middle class, by two in ten of the skilled working class, and by one in ten of the unskilled.
Though I don't know for sure, I imagine that the number for all categories would be lower today in both the United States and Britain--but when you think of how little was competing for leisure-time attention with books in those days, the figures don't seem quite so daunting. At the same time, almost half the 1947 sample, Kynaston reveals, admitted to never reading books at all; the reasons they gave for not reading, like so many of the verbatim responses collected by Mass-Observation questioners, are fascinating:
None of them subjects is interesting to me. All I like is gangster stories, though there's precious much chance of reading here. Three rooms we got and three kids knocking around. No convenience, no nothing except water. I'm glad to get out of the house I can tell you.

Cos I ain't got no interest in them--they all apparently lead up to the same thing.

I'm not very good at reading, I never was. I've never liked it some'ow.

Too long. I like to get straight into a story. I have started books and I have to read through the first pages two or three time. I like to get stuck straight into a story--there's too much preliminary if you see what I mean.

I find the next-to-last respondent almost unbearably poignant--"some'ow" he doesn't like something he was never good at, that he probably was never taught how to do properly. The respondent who might read gangster stories, were it not for the chaos of the house, could be a contemporary parent--and he reminds me of another Mass-Observation subject Kynaston quotes elsewhere, this one on the subject of religion:
Well, I believe in God, but I can't say I'm religious. You get a bit hasty when you've so many children.

The final respondent, though, I think I could help--I know lots of novels that "get straight into a story," with no messing around. If anyone wants to lend me their time machine, I'll load it up with Lawrence Block novels (and maybe, if I want to really freak him out, some Murakami), pop back to 1947, and drop them off at that guy's local library. Anything I should be sure to bring back?

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