Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Readers

On a blog called Read All Day, a former environmental lawyer named Nina Sankovich writes a review of the book she's read in the past twenty-four hours. There are a lot of posts--she's made it through one every day of 2009 so far, and plans to do the same through December 31.

At a dinner party last week, I brought the topic up, and we agreed that would be a bit much for any of us. Yet I realized that everyone at the party was a serious reader, and when I thought about it afterwards it occurred to me that almost all of the people I like to be around are readers. We talked about our book habits. A couple have electronic readers, but only use them when they travel. We all agreed we enjoyed the tactile sense of turning a page made of paper, although there was divergent opinion about whether we could read a newspaper on-line. This is the only way I read news, mostly because it's faster, which arguably isn't a good thing at all, but I read widely and feel my universe is larger because I gather information this way rather than leafing through the local paper with my coffee in the morning.

Afterwards, I wondered what percentage of American adults actually read books. In my research, I found a 2004 report from the National Endowment for the Arts which contained a survey showing that readers of literature had fallen below 50 percent. The NEA proclaimed it a crisis. Think about it: in 2004, You Tube, Facebook and Twitter didn't exist. A good many of the heavy users of these have taken time away from television, but more than likely it's further eroded, probably drastically, the numbers of people who sit quietly with a book.

Does this mean the demise of our culture? I'd like to think not. Yesterday Penelope Trunk argued on her blog, Brazen Careerist, that the Internet is creating a generation of good writers, mostly because the kind of writing younger people do--Facebook and Twitter posts, for example--is for an audience, and one with a short attention span. Brevity is key if they want to get people's attention. And they read a lot on-line, although not traditional material. But to say they don't trade ideas may just be, to borrow a baby boomer phrase, a manifestation of a generation gap.

I am passionate about books, and my house has plenty of them. Yet I don't subscribe to any print publications. I regularly hit on a half-dozen blogs and digital news outlets a day, and listen to podcasts from my favorite NPR shows because my life is too packed to remember to catch them when they are on. I'm on Facebook, and obviously I am a blogger. So the two worlds are not mutually exclusive.

This week my son finished a History Fair project on William Shakespeare, and we talked about how some stories have pretty serious staying power, if they are told very well. And he, like his older sister, has caught the reading bug in fourth grade, to his mother's great delight. Last night we sat in companionable silence, all three of us, our noses in books until we stopped to proclaim some insight we'd gleaned. I got tired and got them off to their rooms. Mom, my son asked, how long can I stay up and read? As long as you want, buddy, as long as you want.

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