Parched For Readers

A few years ago I met a gentleman in New Orleans who had never heard of Stephen King. He was thirty-three years old at the time, a musician for whom a classical education even at the elementary level had never been a priority but who nevertheless was still knowledgeable of pop culture. Still, he was unfamiliar with King and Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and the other King books which had been adapted for film. He didn’t have a book in his house; neither, as it happened, did his mother, or the five of his eight siblings whose homes I visited.
Stephen King, I think I can safely say, is a household name, so people such as my acquaintance who have never heard of him are probably the exception rather than the rule. That no-book thing, however…that bothers me. I know people who watch Castle, which begins its sixth season next month, who haven’t read a mystery novel in decades, if ever. Dexter? Longmire? I still find people who have no idea that these popular dramas are based on novels. Justified slyly winked at Raylan Givens’ literary origins a couple of years ago but I doubt it increased sales of Raylan, which was published on season premiere night.
James Bell’s question from last week regarding the future of publishing was an interesting one which evoked a number of interesting responses. Almost all of them, however, implicitly made an assumption that I don’t think we can make anymore, in this era of entertainment everywhere: we’re each and all of us assuming that there will still be readers. Do you walk into homes without books in evidence? When you’re out somewhere and see people reading, how many do you not see reading? How many times in the past month have you been talking to someone about the last book you’ve read and heard them say, “Gee, I haven’t read a book in years. I just don’t have the time”?
I’m not attempting to be an alarmist here, or a Chicken Little. What I think I’m seeing, however, is a situation where the problem isn’t that we’re drowning in books; it’s that we’re parched for readers, and we’re fighting a battle of attrition. There are plenty of books out there worth reading. For every book I read there is at least one, often more, that I don’t get to and that winds up on my “someday” list. That’s not the problem, as I see it. The difficulty is that for everyone one of me, and you, there are, it seems, five or six who just don’t care. They’d rather watch reality television or something like that.

Am I wrong here? Or am I pointing out the 800 pound gorilla in the room that we’re all trying to studiously ignore?

52 thoughts on “Parched For Readers

  1. My mother and father were both voracious readers, but of my 2 brothers and 2 sisters, I think I am the only one who reads. When I mentioned to my brother that I had written a book, he proudly proclaimed that he had never read one. So, yeah, I think there is an alarmingly large and growing culture of non-readers out there being harvested by TV and YouTube.

  2. You make a great point, Michael, particularly concerning YouTube. It’s a real time bandit, particularly since a great deal of its content is three minutes long or less. I wonder what it’s long-term effect will be on attention spans.

  3. Good post, Joe. I know a man who is proud of the fact that he hasn’t read a fiction book since high school – when he was required to. He is now 78. I asked him why. He said he was embarrassed in class when he gave an oral book report on that last book he read. He decided, never again.

    • Thank you, Dave. You’re easy to please. That’s a sad story on a number of different levels. I wonder how many other people have similar ones.

  4. No, I don’t think you’re wrong, Mr. Hartlaub, but I think the pendulum keeps swinging. There’s an interest, then there isn’t. A book is popular and encourages reading, then it fades. I fervently hope the allure of reality television will come to a crashing halt sometime very soon.

    But I think there is enough of us readers to keep the love alive. Three out of my four closest friends read quite a bit (during the winter especially) and they encourage their grandchildren to read by sharing books with them. My parents always had books on the go, and my sister and I are the same.

    Readers or no, it won’t stop writers from writing.

    • I hope you’re right, Ms. Capper (may I call you Amanda? And please, call me Joe! I’ve been called worse for much better reason!). While I believe we will always have writers, I’d love to see an ever-increasing audience of readers for all.

    • Of course you may, Joe. Taking politeness to a whole new level.

      I’d also love to see an ever-increasing audience of readers, but I wonder…do you consider the increase in people who listen to audio books as an increase in readers? Or is it that people who already read books are now switching to audio?

    • Yes, Amanda, I would. I don’t use audio books because I can read faster than I can listen so that listening to a book drives me nuts — when I’m driving I listen to music — but if my vision was impaired to the point that listening was the only alternative I would use them and still consider myself a reader. I know a number of adults — my wife among them — who prefer audio books for other reasons. So yes, absolutely, even though I don’t use them.

    • I think it was because of the characters. Harry was very likable, misunderstood, an outcast with his family, and he could do magic. There was lots of action. I read them all, and enjoyed them all, for the most part.

      And, of course, for the kids it was because everyone else was talking about the books. Plus, it amazed the adults that their children were reading them. All big motivations for kids just trying to stand out from the crowd while in reality, they are following the crowd.

    • I’ll confess, Joe, that the charm of the Potter books was lost on me, though I was overjoyed at the number of readers of all ages which the books attracted and continue to attract.

      Looking forward to seeing you in Baton Rouge next month!

  5. I work for a very busy library system (second highest circulation in the nation), and am surrounded by avid readers, so that can skew my perspective. Out in the larger world, when I see a young man walking down a sidewalk, immersed in a book, it stands out, or a woman sitting a bus stop, reading a paperback. I have to remind myself, back when I was a teen in the 1970s, I seemed the exception among my peers for being an avid reader. I wonder how much of a decline there has been in the percentage of avid readers over time, as opposed to people who only read a book or three a year?

    • Dale, that’s an interesting question, which leads to another couple: what switches a reader from “avid” to “occasional?” Or vice versa? With respect to the latter, I think it’s simply a matter of author discovery, picking up an Elmore Leonard or Danielle Steele or Stephen King book and really being knocked out by it and then going on to read other efforts by the author and those toiling in similar genres. As to the former question, it might be a matter of time constraints, other superceding interests, or…who knows? I can’t imagine making the switch myself; I’ll probably die with a book in my hands. Not today, hopefully.

    • James, I didn’t know that. I see a lot of older readers passing like ships in the night in the audio book section of my local library, but not many younger ones. That’s an interesting observation and audio book producers might want to fine tune their marketing if they’re not already. Thanks.

  6. It’s hard to count “closet readers.” Many people don’t read in public. They prefer the quiet of their home, the comfort of their easy chair, and easy access to refreshment. I’m that way. I sit in a doctor’s office, cursing him for being late, but I don’t bring reading material. If it gets really bad, I find some paper–any paper–and jot down story ideas. Maybe it’s because I really dive into the book I’m reading, even when I’m reading for fun (i.e. not reviewing). Different strokes….

    • Good point, Steven. By the way, if you have a smartphone, I used the Google Drive app for writing down story ideas or fleshing old ones out.

  7. A month or so ago, I had to stand in line to see the movie Oblivion (apply named). I can’t remember having to stand in line at the bookstore.

  8. I haven’t stood in line like that, Brian, but I’ve seen it done. It was in New Orleans (again) and there was a Bookstar on the edge of the Quarter where late one evening children and parents were lined down North Peters Street awaiting the midnight arrival of a new Harry Potter book. It did my heart good. The store, alas, is long gone.

  9. Anecdotal evidence here:

    This morning I went into a T-Mobile store looking for research help on a plot point for my WIP that involves smart phones (of which I am dumb). The woman who helped me was oh, maybe 25 at most, and was gobsmacked when I told her I was a mystery writer. (Gave her a postcard of latest book as proof). She told me she reads three novels a week and belongs to a book club. When I asked her what her preferred “mode of delivery” was she said “real books.” She says she likes to go out in the Everglades, sit under a tree and read. She has an e-Reader but hates it.

    As I was leaving she thanked me for “being creative.”

    I wanted to hug her.

  10. That’s a great story, Kris. I hope you at least gave her a nice handshake.

    If she likes to read in the Everglades she needs books, as opposed to e-readers. Books work better as spider-smashers. I know this from experience.

    When you’re ready to talk more about your WIP, I’d love to hear about it.

  11. On a recent trip to California, I was in transit for 15+ hours both ways. Almost everyone was reading and reading real books.

    The airlines have tamped down so hard on electronics that carry-on books are back in style. Each airport I was stuck in had a thriving bookstore.

    At my little local library, I often have to wait for the books I want and we have a second-hand bookstore that seems to be doing okay. At the library, the audio books change hands until the covers fall apart.

    I don’t run into many non-readers. Even the movie fans are familiar with the books. But new books face a challenge. The increase in price is a big one. You can buy a bag of once-read paperbacks at a garage sale for the price of a new trade paperback.

    Time will tell, but I think we’re doing okay. But, not read? That’s just scary.


  12. Hard for me to judge that one. I’m surrounded by avid readers, and the onset of e-reader simply enabled my 85-year old mother to become a rabid Kindle book collector. She works her way through collections of any writer she discovers, book by book. I also see the young people around here reading on their gizmos a lot. So admittedly I’m biased, and have no data to back it up, but I think people always want good stories. Whether they’re told sitting around a campfire or delivered via techno-device, people will continue to seek them out. That’s unusually optimistic of me. I’m normally much more doom-and-gloom about future projections.

    • Kathryn, I hope that you’re right and that I am simply turning into a depressive grump. I know people continue to read; I had a gent come up to me out of nowhere at a party and say “I know you! You’re a character in a book!” (WITH A VENGEANCE by Marcus Wynne), which kind of indicates that readers are out there. I’m just worried about attrition. I hope I’m wrong.

  13. I had a casual friend who enjoyed reality tv. In a conversation one night it came out that she hated to read. Not that she didn’t read because she didn’t have time, etc., but because she HATED the very act of reading. It didn’t matter if it was a book or magazine, she wasn’t reading voluntarily, and she wasn’t illiterate. I was gobsmacked. It killed the conversation. I’d never met anybody who hated to read. I never looked at her the same way again. We haven’t spoken for a few years now.

    There have always been readers, but not everybody is a reader, and it’s always been that way. The question is is the percentage of people who read for pleasure substantially different than what it was in the past?

    • That’s precisely what I’m worried about, catfriend. And I get why you took a different view of your friend. It’s like someone who hates animals; I have no idea where they’re coming from.

  14. I worked at a Barnes & Noble to research “Murder Between the Covers” and was surprised by the number of readers — young readers, too. A boy about 8 wanted to buy “The Adventures of Captain Underpants” (parents hate it, grandparents love it, full of toilet jokes.) I asked his brother, about 12, if he read Captain Underpants.
    “That’s for kids,” he said. “Ever hear of Steinbeck?”
    “Ever read ‘The Grapes of Wrath’?”
    “Steinbeck rules.”
    I like to believe in a world where Steinbeck rules.

    • Elaine, now you got me started. I think part of the problem is that young readers aren’t exposed to authors like Steinbeck in school anymore. I had to read THE PEARL and OF MICE AND MEN in high school. I was heavily into science fiction at the time but I went and got every Steinbeck book I could lay my hands on. THE MOON IS DOWN is the first book I ever read in one sitting; THE WAYWARD BUS was the second. We studied the short stories in college freshman English; I think “Flight” has informed my core philosophy — better to die on your feet than live on your knees — more than any other single work of literature. And there are at least two generations who for the most part have never read a word the man has written. And THAT is part of the reason why we have reader attrition. Steinbeck may not rule in this world, but he sure does in mine.

  15. Reminds me of when my neighbor told me her daughter was named Jules. I said, “Like Jules Verne?” and she gave me a blank look and said, “Who’s that?” She’d named her after some celebrity or other. I was mortified.

    I read to my kids all the time. My 6 year old son sat and read his books from the library yesterday. All of them in one shot and now he’s done. I think we need to move up to chapter books. My younger ones love sitting down with picture books. Hopefully this will continue into later years.

  16. You asked if you were wrong–I think you are. Even people I know that don’t read a lot of books, read an occasional book. My dad reads about one a year. And I have had to stand in a long line in a bookstore, many times. I am quite hopeful about the future of book reading.

  17. I don’t think I’m wrong but I hope I am, Anon.

    I’m glad that your dad continues to read. My dad would buy books but I don’t think he read them. The last book he read for pleasure, I think, was HAWAII by James Michener when it was first published. My mom read like crazy in the 1950s (lots of John O’Hara) but she stopped for whatever reason in the 1970s.

    That is great news, by the way, about the long lines at your bookstore. Hope you’re always in the front!

  18. I give books as gifts to children to make sure there’s at least one book in their home. (Goodnight Moon for baby #1, Runaway Bunny for baby #2, and appropriate titles as the children get older.)

    Non-readers always surprise me–even though I encounter them quite frequent.

    Some people with illnesses and mental health issues can’t focus on a full-length novel. That’s why magazines, short story collections or little gift books are better for people who are in the hospital or home recovering from an illness.

    I think young people generally like shorter books–except for the fantasy readers who love a tome.

    As writers, we need to respond to the changing needs and habits of potential readers.

    • I love short stories, F.L. They also serve as a good introduction to genres; I recommend those Years Best anthologies to folks who might want to break into mysteries, horror, science fiction, etc.

      Your discussion of books as gifts was timely…my younger daughter was invited to a birthday party for twin sisters who love to read. She didn’t know what to do about a present. My suggestion: gift cards to Half Price Books. They loved it.

  19. Joe, talking about your dad, my dad worked at a blue collar job where he monitored a huge assembly line, for nearly 30 years. He averaged one paperback book per shift, mostly westerns. He read every Louie L’Amour book published, most of them several times. Zane Grey and every other western writer.

    When he died, my brother picked out a book from his collection to put in Dad’s hand in the casket. It was L’Amour’s “Beyond the Blue Mountains.”

    Brings a tear to my eye thinking about it.

    • And mine as well, Dave, thanks for that great story. I grew up on Western television and loved it when I discovered that there was a wealth of western novels as well. I at one point had every Edge novel in print. And the series has relaunched!

  20. (I am resubmitting my comment as it included a few typos that made parts unclear)

    I think there are and always will be non-readers. I don’t think the media detract from anyone who would be otherwise reading. I ride a train (light rail) to work, and I’m always encouraged to see about half of the other riders reading on their phones or other devices. Before I got an e-reader, I thought that was strange. Now I understand that people will read on anything, even their phone.
    Maybe I’m optimistic. As for people who say they don’t read, for a large (unfortunate) number that may be true. But I’ll bet some read more than they think, as they probably pick up magazines and read newspapers.
    I think teachers get a chance to turn around the children of non-readers in school, as do the people who mentioned about that they give books as gifts to children.

    • The first time I saw a Kindle, Kathryn, was on a New York Subway. I knew what they looked like, but had never seen one in the plastic, so to speak. The second one I saw, a few months later, was in the middle of a legal seminar. The attorney seated next to me had one. They’re easy to hide in course materials, much more so than a bulky book. 🙂

      While I’ve loved reading since I was old enough to grasp a book, my fifth grade teacher, Sister Theresa Mary, really helped me to broaden my range of reading while exposing me to a broader range of detective fiction, particularly Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels. I totally am with you re: teachers turning kids into readers.

    • Teachers can also turn kids off of reading. A young teen of my acquaintance told me when he was younger & struggled w/reading, he had a teacher throw a book at him. Naturally, he hasn’t been very fond of reading since.

      I can relate. I had a lousy teacher who forever squelched any desire I had to pursue math.

      BK Jackson

  21. Growing up we were library regulars. My mom always had stacks of Harlequins, etc and each of us kids got all the books we could ever want. Out of all four of us though I think I’m the only one continued reading regularly into and beyond high school. When I was in the Marines there were a lot of guys who were voracious readers, this was kindled by the Commandants Reading List that recommends books every Marine from private to general should read. This list has been out in various forms since the 19th century and was made an ‘official’ list in 1988. While those guys are considered by some to be knuckle dragging brutes they can often be found reading historical treatises, books of verse, and novels in addition to tactical and technical books. A bunch of us used to share books around until they were ragged and worn (and I’m not just talking about porn here). That being said, in the office environment in which I now work I’ve only found a very small handful of people who read anything other than what they have to for work.

    At home, while my wife almost never reads fiction, she does devour a lot of non-fiction both digitally and in paper in both English and Korean. All three of our sons are ravenous readers of fiction. Stacks of YA and Fantasy books are all over. My oldest lived for the Potter series. He also read the Redwall books a love of which he passed to his brothers before he left home a couple years ago. The middle son is totally into fantasy series books and the youngest loves Louis L’Amour like I did. We’ve got three different e-readers and a Galaxy Tablet for reading, and magazines everywhere.

    So my thought regarding readers is that there is always someone out there searching for something to read, write it and they will come.

    • I love that Commandants Reading List, Basil. One advantage of ebooks is that publishers can get a look at where there books are selling; I know of one author of thriller novels who was showing HUGE numbers in Afghanistan; the troops were lapping him up.

      My sons were never much into reading, interestingly enough, until they left home. Now they read quite a bit. The older one likes southern noir and police procedurals, while the younger one enjoys espionage thrillers. My older daughter prefers young adult books, and my younger daughter prefers horror, though she’s…on YouTube a lot.

  22. Joe –

    I hope you are wrong. I fear you are right.

    Looking at the estimates of the hours spent by today’s population on electronic entertainment it seems unlikely that time exists for them to read as earlier folks did.

    The loss would be tragic. Hard to imagine a video game positively informing one’s core philosophy.

  23. Tom, I saw one survey of 15-24 year olds that questioned how they spent their time. YouTube was far and away in first place. Reading was a distant fifth behind video games, social networking, and movies. Worrisome indeed.

  24. Better late than never here. I had reading difficulties as a child–dyslexia (undiagnosed). However, I was fascinated by physical books. I eventually taught myself to read with comics. I’ve always been a visual thinker. I would make my own comic books and eventually add more and more dialogue. I like making books today, with wooden covers. My parents–both teachers–never read anything at home except the newspaper and Life Magazine. The only books we had were gifts (they never read them, but I did) and the ones I made.

    And I ended up a technical writer for twentysome years. And I’m still hacking away on fiction.

    Whaddaya gonna do?

  25. Nobody’s ever late at TKZ, Jim! That’s how we roll. I taught myself to read with comics as well…comic strips, actually, with Prince Valiant and then Dick Tracy in the Sunday papers. One of the happiest days of my life was discovering that the daily paper had comic strips too. And then I found comic books. I think it’s really cool that you made your own comics. If you still have them you’ll have to share with us sometime.

    • Thanks, Joe. I wish I still had them. I come from the time when radio programs were the big deal: The Creaking Door, The Shadow Knows (hahahah). Story has always been a huge part of my life.

  26. Joe–
    Consider the growing pressure on people who write books to produce videos to sell those books. Is this crazy or what? Of course it is, and it’s part and parcel of the new reality for writers.

    • BW, I don’t know if it’s crazy, necessarily, but I can honestly say, speaking only for me, that a video has never made me want to buy or read a book. Never. Somehow the idea that a video would be an effective marketing tool for reading has become common knowledge. Alas, “common knowledge” is often neither.

  27. I think there’s a specific reason for reading and books slowly slipping out of the mainstream of our culture.

    I love books. I grew up surrounded by them. I was read to by my grandmother, mother, and even my older brothers. My dad was constantly reading.

    Then I married a man who loves books. He grew up surrounded by books, and his parents and grandparents, in addition to his older siblings, were great book lovers. With his background in acting, he’s a dramatic reader and read to our kids from the time they were tiny. So did I, interspersing books such as ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ which were far beyond their depth for their age. They now love books.

    I think the general breakdown of the family unit has caused the love of reading and the love of book to fail from transferring successfully over the boundaries of generations.

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