One of my favorite passages in literature is from Italo Calvino’s if on a winter’s night a traveler—the one in which the narrator stands in the bookstore listing all the different kinds of books every true reader owns but will never read. Somehow it’s always captured, exactly, the disconnect between the truth and fiction of my own reading life.
Also, I’ve never been a big poetry person, and I’m jealous of people who actually enjoy Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene—do they have a critical literary gene that I’m missing? I prefer curling up on the couch with a glass of wine and the new issues of Lucky and Bon Appetit.
I think Netflix is the best invention ever.
I own a TV and I’m not afraid to use it.
I go to the gym.
And that’s only the beginning…
I confess: I’m an English composition professor and a writer with an MFA, but I don’t always put my money where my mouth is, literature-wise. I give in to temptations of all sorts when it comes to divvying up my free time. To justify my weak will, I’ve often argued things like, Plenty of movies (Memento, You Can Count on Me) teach me about storytelling as well as written stories. But the fact is that many of the movies I find myself watching (Spiderman) aren’t much good for instruction; instead, they’re good for facilitating my escape from the real world.
Engaging in activities like movie-watching and magazine-flipping gives me that fabulous sensation of quick-fix deliverance from my daily cares (which include teaching and writing). I can think shallow, easy thoughts, like: That purse would look great with my black pumps. Or, Chili pepper flakes would liven up this sauce a lot. Or, At least I’m not as shallow as the heroine of this movie. By comparison, sitting down to read a good book feels like too much of an investment.
Harried modern people feel entitled to such fixes. We think, I’ve got so much to do! Why take the time to (re)read a classic like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when it’s going to be released on the big screen, offering us the chance to kill two birds (experiencing the story and still getting to the next five items on our to-do lists) with one stone.
While it’s true that I’m as much a victim of this quick-fix mentality as the next person, I still love to read. And when I do take the time to clear my schedule and sit down with a good book, it feels like a luxury. When I abandon myself to it, I can feel my very soul expanding.
The NEA’s "Reading at Risk" report indicated that fewer people are reading, fewer people are seeking that soul expansion that die-hard readers crave on a regular basis. What I’d like to advance, though, is the notion that many of these “nonreaders” have not, in fact, gone over to the dark side; rather, they’ve just gotten lost in the fray. In other words, plenty of readers are still out there, but just like me, their to-do lists have gotten too long, and/or they’re overly susceptible to the same kinds of quick-fixes that I am. (Furthermore, I don’t think this lost readers theory disagrees with the thesis, advanced by Sven Birkerts among others, that reading is a sequential activity, which has been replaced by non-sequential activities. Many believe that people who enjoy exclusively non-sequential entertainment have trained their brains to find reading difficult if not impossible. I disagree. The human brain is more than capable of adapting to more than two modes of entertainment; it’s simply a matter of training.)
If that’s the case, then the question is not, How do we create new readers? It is, How do we win them back? If, in our quest for the latter we also do the former, well then, good for us.