Tuesday, July 29, 2008


In my on-going curiosity about why people don’t read, I’m beginning to think more and more about the management of consciousness, because so many people say, “Oh, I have to be in the mood” or “most of the time I don’t feel like it,” as though it were playing tennis. So far, these are my provisional theories.

1. People are not used to doing solitary things. As a culture we tend to discourage “being alone” as symptomatic of a failure to get along with others or an interest in things that need to be hidden. (The privacy of reading is one of its major appeals, I think.) It’s suggested that maybe readers are depressed, or obsessive. A little vague guilt attaches to “going off to read.”

Lately reading has been attached to “book groups” where people don’t seem to pay much attention to books, even to the point of reading the books assigned, but enjoy the socializing and evidently use the suggested book as a way of gathering congenial people of the right sort. People who actually READ THE BOOK are out of step.

Unless one is good at concentrating, it’s hard to find a quiet place for reading. Houses are designed for everyone to be together in one big room, even the cook. Computers, video games, ordinary TV and radio, pets, and kids keep up the commotion. If a person goes off alone, everyone else wants to know why they’re missing -- aren’t we loved anymore?

3. The teaching of reading is in disrepair, in spite of “no child left behind.” We seem to think that people will spontaneously begin to read the way children spontaneously begin to talk. This was true for me, but clearly not true for everyone. The brain expands according to what it’s used for: if you read, it becomes easier; if you don’t, it gets harder. In an atmosphere where learning is defined as “sucking up”, it’s hard for a kid to even try.

4. What books?
The most common reaction to my own library is that the books should be gotten rid of, unless I haven’t read them yet or have already read them. Reading is a means to an end, and the end is entertainment. Many people can’t think of any other end BUT entertainment, so once a person knows the plot, there’s no use in keeping the book. Books about ideas, books that require analysis, books for research, books that are beloved, books read for appreciation of the style, etc. are not frowned on -- it’s just that they are unknown, unperceived.

5. Books and magazines are too expensive.
Boy, I agree with this one! But the judicious use of the used book websites (Alibris.com, Abebooks.com, and Powells.com) can provide some great reading for almost nothing. I find books I really want for $1 each. Of course, it’s a little tricky if they have to be shipped a long ways. My collection of Durrell paperbacks (the equivalent of $1 each) cost me $50 in shipping! There's always the library.

6. The only time for reading might be while traveling, either commuting daily or on long flights, and then books on tape work better. Well, that’s okay. I guess I’d count that as reading. And earphones discourage chatty seatmates better than holding a book, which might invite inquiries and unwelcome opinions.

7. Reading is seen as escapism.
It’s a way of running away from problems by living fantasy lives instead of facing the real problems of being a human these days. But mightn’t books offer ideas for coping? Doesn’t Harry Potter encourage us all to be part of a community? Doesn’t Lord of the Rings teach us all to persist, to forgive, to believe in the truth?

8. None of the stuff in print now is about people like me.
The publishers seem to value nutcases, felons and foreigners. Why should anyone care about all those people? Doesn’t anyone write about people like us? Where do we find such writing? There are no bookstores for people like us. What do we Google?

9. But doubling back to the management of consciousness, so much of people’s lives seems to be in reaction rather than proactive and internally felt in macro-shifts rather than fine-tuning. We calm ourselves, not with “a nice cup of tea,” (which many people wouldn’t be able to tell was “nice” anyway -- just that it was tea) but by slugging back Big Gulps or tall cans of beer. Childhood, school and jobs are all focused on demands from others or from a schedule or from practical needs. No one demands that we need to read and, once out of school, we feel as though it’s an unjust demand anyway. Isn’t reading optional once you’ve graduated?

10. Yesterday a letter came that put reading in a harsh light. It was from my Oregon Public Employers Retirement System and was telling me the results from a court case between Strunk and Eugene about the management of the funds and the formula for disbursing payments. At first reading it appeared to tell me that my monthly pension was about to be reduced from more than two hundred dollars to three dollars. At second reading it appeared to say that my share of the lawyers’ costs (which were $763,367) would be $3.50. Third reading hinted that my monthly pension was getting a COLA increase of $3.70. Fourth reading suggested that since the COLA had been frozen since 2004, I might be getting a check for all the back due increases: let’s see, 3.70 for twelve months for four years is... YOWZER!! I might be able to afford to keep warm this winter! My mood was going all over the place: terror, hope, excitement, elation, suspicion...

The problem was not really a superficial “reading” skills problem. The problem was that I don’t have the context of the daily newspaper stories on this issue, since I’m in a different state, and also I don’t understand the implications of the terms they use, since it is a rather specialized vocabulary. Of course, they give me a number to call so I can ask questions, but I’m embarrassed by the necessity. They’ll think I can’t read. So I’ll just wait and see what my next payment reveals on the evidence, as it were.

But that points to something else that underlies the aversion to reading: first that it requires thinking and second that it is often so jargon-concept based that one needs a dictionary -- both energy-demanding. And if there is any political content, surely there will have been an effort to find terms that are misleading. A time-line becomes a horizon becomes a desired outcome. Sigh. But here’s a mood shifter: it’s only a hundred days to the election. I think I’ll do a lot of reading in the interval, but maybe cancel the newspaper.


Michael Shay said...

A thoughtful and literate post on "why people don't read." Not sure if you nailed all of the reasons, but the idea that reading has become odd or antisocial appeals to me.

What are your thoughts on the Internet's contribution to this trend? Blogs tend to be more about referencing other blogs that about writing fully-formed essays such as this one. Time is a factor, but also expectations. "I am a blogger, thus I must write fast and provide link-heavy posts, and then move on quickly to something else." I'm guilty of this on my blog, and I'm a writer.

Looking forward to reading more on your blog.

Anonymous said...

This is a superb posting. I am specially troubled by the frequent inability of younger people to be at home with themselves. They seem to need some sort of connection, the blaring TV, the cell phone chatter, the radio, the hanging out with others, and this narcotic makes them incapable of enjoying a life of the mind, or entering an author's world, or contemplation, or spiritual growth. The modern pathology is not in the person content with his or her own company, but in the people who feel desperate if they aren't connected every which way.

Richard Wheeler

Dona Stebbins said...

Mary, what a beuatifully written commentary on a subject that is near and dear to me. I have been an "addicted" reader since age 5, and have tried to pass that addiction on to my daughters. Even though we didn't have a lot of money when they were growing up, they always had a library card, and if there was a book they wanted, we found a way to get it into their hands.

I still read 5-6 books a week on a variety of subjects - of course, this curtails my TV time ( not a bad thing, by any means.) I have never been a big fan of the little picture.

I can understand that the internet has had a somewhat negative effect on the act of researching by actually holding a reference book in your hand, but I am guilty of googling when I am rushed.

To my mind, NOTHING will replace the comforting feel of a beloved book in your hand, perhaps one that you have read once or twice before, and will read once or twice again. I am hopeful that my daughters will carry on that family tradition.