NEA's Reading at Risk Redux

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

By Robert Gray

In July, NEA chairman Dana Gioia announced the dismal results of a survey of America's reading habits, including the news that those people admitting to having read fiction, poetry, or plays had dipped to 46.7 percent in 2002, down from 54 percent the last time the survey was done in 1992.

A copy of the study still rests on my desk, taunting me.

As a reader, a bookseller, and a writer, I have a deeply vested interest in the NEA study, which is perhaps why it won't leave me alone two months later. So, here are some random thoughts that still linger:

As a bookseller, I live in a narrow corner of the universe where perhaps 90 percent of the people I converse with every day are readers by almost any definition of the term. The simple act of opening a bookshop's front door and walking in separates these people from the herd.

Still, I was actually amazed that 47 percent of Americans confess to reading novels, plays, and/or poetry. It's remarkable that we've managed to cling to a readership that high in the face of the apparently irresistible, in-your-face temptations of the Information Age -- particularly the Internet, which demands a kind of feeding frenzy mentality in terms of reading.

The vertiginous drop in literary readership since the 1992 (pre-WWW world) study seems absolutely logical for many reasons, including the numerous visual temptations as well as the word monsoon we constantly face.

Even people who hate reading now have to read all day long. White collar workers are chained to their desks and Palm Pilots, of course, but even my friends with blue collar jobs often end up staring at computer screens -- grocery store cashiers, fast food counter workers, potato chip route salesman, the UPS guy, telemarketers, booksellers, etc. Do you know how much data processing a garage mechanic has to do to fix your car these days?

Many of these folks go home, turn on the family desktop machine and read e-mail, sports scores, headlines, bank statements, and all the info-detritus of daily life. They may even check out a few blogs, or keep one of their own (and no one writes more words-per-square-thought than bloggers do). When they turn on the TV to watch CNN or ESPN, two or three headline/statistics bars are always running along the bottom of the screen.

Our lives are subtitled.

Little wonder that when it comes to reading for pleasure, the common response is, "Words? We don't need no stinkin' words."

As to the dumbing down of young people that the NEA study seemed to imply, I can't imagine when this was not an issue in societies the world over. One imagines Og complaining to his wife a few thousand years ago that Og, Jr. showed no interest in making proper stone axes or painting accurately detailed woolly mammoths on the cave wall.

Children have always been going to hell. The majority of my college classmates 30 years ago certainly exhibited no mass interest in reading for pleasure, at least none that was apparent to me at the time. Many of them would fit in quite nicely in the alleged intellectual wasteland of today's youth culture.

Statistics show ... And yet, and yet, I work with young people at the bookstore all the time who read, who reflect, who think outside the cultural handcuffs of peer pressure and media influence.

The dirty little secret in all such studies is that, despite best efforts and incessant hand-wringing, some people will read adventurously and many will not.

If there's one thing you can still say about books that isn't so true of other arts, it's that the medium is accessible to all if they want it enough. Books are on library shelves everywhere, even if they're sometimes blocked from view by computer terminals.

But how do you make great writing irresistible? I think sometimes we tend to scold people instead of selling them when we talk about reading good stuff.

That's certainly true, for example, of literary fiction in translation, which we continue to market as something Americans "should" read to better understand the world.

Maybe things can change. At BookExpo last June, I had a conversation with some other booksellers about the great Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. We were bemoaning his lackluster sales in the U.S., and yet, two months later, his novel Snow sits comfortably on the Book Sense Bestseller List.

So, I'm avoiding the "duty" argument for now and using the same techniques with translated work that I would use to sell our customers any good book: I tell them a story, I read them a line or two, I make them feel like they'll be missing something wonderful if they don't read the book.

And it works. It's stunningly simple.

Sometimes the solutions aren't earthshaking. Sometimes the adjustments are minor, yet have substantial effects. For the moment we're trying to make it happen here, one reader at a time. And I believe it's happening elsewhere, too.

Orhan Pamuk is Exhibit A.

Robert Gray is a bookseller/buyer at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont. This column originally appeared in his Weblog, "Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal," at