Most people don’t read books
“Really, guys, it’s not as awful as it sounds. Reading shouldn’t have to be a chore. For one thing, you’re not in school anymore – so there’s no time limit for finishing a book, no research paper requirement, and no test for comprehension at the end. No one’s going to give you a bad grade if you don’t finish the book, either. So if it’s not to your taste, bail out and try another one.” – Lynne Cantwell. Indies Unlimited
Sooner or later each year, the U. S. reading statistics are trotted out and they’re always horrible. Most people don’t read any fiction after leaving high school and college. For example, 80% of U.S. families didn’t buy a book this year and 70% haven’t been in a book store in the last five years. The second statistic is hard to gauge if it doesn’t count online bookstores or people who buy books at places like Walmart and Kroger.
With all the hoopla every year about bestsellers and literary prizes and hot novels being turned into movies, it’s easy to assume everyone is reading books. When I look at the sales figures for famous authors, I sometimes think everyone is reading, say, J. K. Rowling’s and Stephen King’s books.
I loved reading books but not when they were assigned in school. Whether it was the sacks of books we were expected to read in college English classes while simultaneously reading sacks of books for each of our other classes or the inane book reports or the atomistic analysis of the stories, school just about killed by enthusiasm for reading. Goodness knows what happens to students who come from houses with only two books, the Holy Bible and the cookbook.
Nonetheless, my English classes are long ago and far away and I’ve been cured of most of the harm they did. Now, I can’t imagine not reading. Those who don’t read, probably don’t understand the fascination of it or why people would want to do it any more than rabid fans understand why I don’t like NASCAR or pro football.
Psychology Today says that “reading fiction improves brain connectivity and function” and Refine the Mind says reading “improves social perception and emotional intelligence.” I won’t debate the truth of their findings. But those findings aren’t why I read. They’re icing on the cake, perhaps.
I read because I like a good story. Even adults who don’t read tell stories to each other every day, stories about what happened at work, a goofy experience a friend shared during lunch, a strange encounter with a wild animal or a crook or a policeman, or what they’re cat was doing when they got home from work. When somebody stops by the house and says, “you can’t guess what happened to the tractor this morning,” I want to know what happened from start to finish. Of course, some people can tell a story better than others. But still, there’s usually drama and humor and sadness and fear and horror and accomplishment in these daily stories.
We learn lessons from them, I suppose. But I don’t think that’s the main reason we tell and listen to stories. I think we share stories because that’s the format in which we see things that happen around us. When we’re in the middle of a good joke, we can’t stand missing the punchline. When we’re in the middle of a good story, we can’t stand missing the ending whether it’s “how did you get the tractor out of the swamp?” or “what the store manager said when a hundred glass jars of pickles fell off the shelf on aisle two.”
A short story or a novel extends what we all do naturally. Yet so many don’t do it. Perhaps they stopped reading because they read a short story in an English class and the next test asked them to explain what it meant when the tractor got stuck in the swamp OR True/False – the broken pickle jars represented the fall of the feudal system. Such questions might be worth considering in upper level courses, but they seem to miss the spirit of the story when thrust upon freshmen and sophomore students.
I’m not an intellectual when it comes to fiction. Yet, I see multiple meanings in the stories I read. They’re often important. They’re important to me because I found them, not because a professor or critic said they were there and were the defining points behind the stories. I don’t know why most people don’t read, so perhaps it has nothing to do with the over-analysis of stories in college courses or the poor choices of books on high school reading lists. Perhaps it’s something else.
If you like to read, what do your non-reading friends tell you about why they don’t read. For men, is it a sissy activity? For women, is it evidence of a dreamy intellectual who’s out of touch with reality? Are people too busy and find it easier to go to a baseball game or watch something on TV.
As a writer, hearing that most people don’t read is rather like being a funeral director in a land where people don’t die. OK, maybe it’s not like that at all. Whatever it is, it’s discouraging.