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Saturday, June 02, 2007
How do we encourage reading?
A couple of days ago, I reacted to the used book store owner in Kansas City who staged a book-burning to protest the fact that reading for pleasure is on the decline. In the post, I wondered how we can encourage people to start reading again--esp. those young readers who are consumed with the love of the Harry Potter books. I know I've seen a few articles in the past couple of weeks wondering what bookstores will do when the seventh and final volume comes out later this year.

Kat Coble had a nice post about it on her blog, a lot of which I agree with. Her post along with some comments here got my thinking.

Here's the thing--I've been reading for as long as I can remember and I have loved it all my life. Honestly, I cannot imagine my world without at least picking up a book and reading for at least 20 minutes a day.

To my mind, reading is the ultimate virutal reality experience. Yes, the author may put words on a page, but it takes a reader to make them come alive. It's the reader who will put his or her thoughts and experiences into the story, making the words on the page come alive and be vibrant and interesting. And the reading experience is never the same for any two people, which makes it one of the most unique and personal forms of entertainment on the market today. And no matter how far technology takes us, it always will be.

But how do we encourage people to share that love?

I realize that in today's world, a lot of us spent a lot of time at work reading--a lot of it done on a computer screen. And after eight hours of reading information, memos, spreasheets, etc., it could be difficult to feel much desire to pick up a book and do more reading. But I'd argue that work reading and reading for pleasure are two separate beasts--well, unless you enjoy reading spreadsheets full of data or memos in your spare time. Then, I think maybe you need some serious help.

Again, how do we get people to share the love of books?

Well, for one thing, we've got to stop this whole literary snob thing that goes on. I am a book-a-holic and I will admit I read my fair-share of media tie-in novels. If you look at my reading consumption for the past few years, you will see a good number of books that take place within media tie-in universes--mainly Star Trek and Doctor Who. I'd say a good quarter of the books I read are somehow media tie-in novels. And you know what--this is not a bad thing. Now, I'd never go out on a limb and call these books great literature, but they're still fun (for the most part) to read. And many times, when a media tie-in novel ties together several threads from a show in an interesting, new way it can be just as satisfying to me as one of the great literary giants pulling together his or her plot threads in some thick, stream-of-consiousness tome of literature.

The thing is--reading is supposed to be fun. Yes, it's an exercise for the mind and sometimes we need to stretch those muscles a bit. But we don't have to do that with every book we read. It's OK to read a book just because it seems like it'd be a fun way to pass a couple of hours or is based on something we know and like from television or a video-game.

Going along with that, we need to stop the snobbery that goes along with certain genres. I like that bookstores and libraries will put books of a certain kind together so I can easily find them, but that said, I get annoyed when people look down on an entire genre as having little or no literary merit. For example, science-fiction. I believe science-fiction is just like any other genre--you have some good books, you have some bad books. But to dismiss an entire genre becuase there's a book or two in there that are beneath your lofty standards is a bit silly. I think books should be judged solely on their own merit--not just by what genre they're in. I took a modern novel class in college and we actually read Nueromancer as part of the course. Why? Because it was a revolutionary modern just happened to be sci-fi.

Of course, there were some in the class who were upset and protested they didn't "get" all the science-fictiony stuff in the book....but I honestly think they missed the point of the whole exercise. And these were the same people weeks before who were gushing about Beloved and how great it was. To my mind, they're both in the same category of great books....they just come from different, unique genres.

I've read a lot of great sci-fi over the years and I can honestly say there a few books that I think should be put on the standard reading list for high school and college. But I bet they won't because they're sci-fi. (I think everyone should at least read Dune once in their lifetime, not just see the crappy movie versions).

That said, I think the publishing industry has some responsibilties here as well. I know as Harry Potter 7 gets closer, we'll hear all kinds of reports on what is the "next" Harry Potter. Here's the thing--what was Harry Potter before Harry Potter? Can't we just enjoy a unique series and not have to find something that exactly emulates it for the young readers? I like the Harry Potter books, but I can't stand the Eragon series, which many called the next Harry Potter books (mainly because Eragon is essentially Star Wars with the names changed). Yes, if someone likes the wizardry and magic of Harry Potter, than another book that features similiar elements might be a good starting point...but why not also encourage them to read other, new things? After all, Harry Potter was new and different.

Along with this, I have to say we need more editors to start editing. Or to at least have the power to stand up to big name authors and let them know that just becuase they wrote 1500 pages, not every word is the greatest thing in the universe. I love Stephen King but for a while there, the man really had diharrea of the typewriter and I don't think he had an editor who would say "Steve, it's good, but we've got to edit this thing down a bit." Same thing for Tom Clancy. I will say this problem has been solved, at least by King. His past few novels show a good deal of editing and care and they read better for it. Don't get me wrong here--I love King and a longer Stephen King book is always appreciated. But only if it's longer for the right reasons.

Also, I really think we' ve got to get away from series-itus. This is probably more of a sci-fi issue than most other genres, but I think it applies. It seems as if every sci-fi or fantasy novel that comes out these days is the start of some epic 17 part storyline. Or worse yet--if the first one does well, it becomes part of a series, whether the story calls for it or not. Don't get me wrong here-- I love a good series of novels, but if you're going to print a series of novels, make sure when part seven comes out that part one is in print. Otherwise it makes reading seem like an exclusive club that only the cool can enter and if you came late to the party, oh well. Or make the novels loosely connected so you can read the second or third volume without having read the third and still not feel like you're missing something. (John Scalzi's Old Man's War trilogy is a fine example of how to do this right). And a note to publishers and writers--if you say that a series is going to be six books, don't pad it out to eight or nine just to increase the profits. I'm looking at your Robert Jordan. I can't and won't read the Wheel to Time series because a)I'm 10 billion pages behidn and b)more and more it appears he has no intnetion of ever finishing it.

So, those are some of my ideas. Anyone got any thing else to add?

posted by Michael Hickerson at 6/02/2007 10:37:00 AM | |
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