I’ve been asking myself this question since I’m surrounded by people who don’t. I did a little research and discovered that there has been a decline in people who are reading. Many of the articles lamented about the fact that people aren’t enlightening themselves with literature.
Personally, I think if that’s what we consider reading, then add me to the number of people who don’t, despite the fact that I read about 100 books a year on average, though I can read much more than that depending on my available time. None of those 100 books is “literature.” Hey, I did my time in high school! I wrote the painstaking analysis essays. I know “how” to read literature. I just never learned to enjoy it. Probably because I was always taught to take it seriously. To look for some deep theme or message. To analyze the heck out of it.
So as soon as I walked out of the classroom, my nose was buried in a different type of book altogether. Andre Norton, Dianne Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Robin McKinley, David Eddings—not a Twain or Tolstoy among them. The thing is, all of the books I read (yes, even the romances) have a theme. There is some deeper meaning to them (even if the author didn’t intend it to be there). I could sit there and write a complex analysis of a book from any one of the above authors. I could. But why the heck would I? I don’t need to constantly analyze what the author was trying to say. I don’t care. I want escape. I want to travel to a different world and walk in the shoes of a different person. I want to experience that new world through vivid imagery. I don’t want to waste my time breaking down that imagery in a mind-numbing comparison of tactile versus symbolic. Bleh!
I know that reading is on the decline. I don’t need a survey to tell me that. It makes sense that it is though. It’s difficult to convince the newest generation to delve into the written word when they have the Internet, smartphones, and video games. To make it even harder, most of the more popular YA books are being made into movies, so why should a kid bother reading the book when they can just wait for the movie to come out. (I know, I know. The movies are never as good as the books, but they are flashy, bright, colorful, and require little effort to enjoy—like most modern entertainment.)
However, even though convincing people to read in these media-glutted times is difficult, I think it’s worth doing. I believe that people are missing out when they don’t read. (And no, you don’t have to slog through heavy tomes like War and Peace to get the full benefits of reading. I don’t care what your English teacher says.) The reason that people should read is because it forces you to use your imagination instead of relying on some movie producer or game developer to create the images for you. You can picture the characters as you’d like. You can visualize the setting as your mind draws it. It’s not just the author’s world anymore—it’s your interpretation of it. You bring your own knowledge and experience into the world and make it belong to you. That’s why reading is far more personal than going to see the movie of the book.
It seems like many of the proponents of reading push literature as the gold standard, but if that was the message I’d absorbed as a child, I probably wouldn’t be a reader now. In fact, had I grown up in this generation, where entertainment is cheap, readily available, and bright and flashy, I might never have sought out the fiction shelves at the library for something to do, and with my teachers pushing books that made me want to break out in hives as an alternative (no offense to teachers, you guys are awesome and do hard work trying to inspire kids!), I never would have become such an avid reader, and if I hadn’t, I doubt I would have developed the wild imagination that I now have. Being able to visualize the stories created by others gave me the ability to imagine my own worlds and then translate those images into words.
Now I’m not saying don’t introduce people to classical literature. If you truly love a book, then by all means recommend it to others. Share your love of it, and why you love it, and they might find that they love it too. What I am trying to say is that if we expect people to see reading as comparable entertainment to everything else that’s available now, we can’t push heavy literature as the standard. Short stories, novellas, pulp fiction—it’s all good. Anything that gets people reading and gets their imagination working is good.
If you want everyone to love reading, you have to point them to works that are accessible for everyone. People who don’t normally read might consider literature to be all those books they were forced to read and analyze in school. It’s no wonder they avoid reading like the plague. From the articles I’ve read on the decline of reading, the complaint isn’t that people aren’t reading. It’s that they aren’t reading “literature.” So I thought I’d add my own two cents to this, and say I don’t care if people never read another classic in their lifetimes. There are so many books out there that will never be considered in that category, but I bet you’re going to love them.
So consider turning off the TV or putting down your smartphone for a bit and check out the vast number of different worlds and experiences you can live through in the pages (real or virtual) of a book.
What do you think about this? Do you love classical literature and think I’m being too hard on it? I’d love to hear your comments on that. I still shudder whenever I think of reading anything recommended by a school board, but if you have recommendations that you think would wipe away the bad taste I got from forced reading, let me know. What do you think of the decline of reading? Can it be turned around, or are books on the way out altogether, unable to compete with all the other media? Do you think reading books even matters anymore?