Are readers an endangered species?

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Telegraph.co.uk:

Photo: Andrew Crowley
Photo: Andrew Crowley

Reading has become a “specialist activity” which only a minority enjoy regularly, rather than something most people do routinely, according to the novelist Ruth Rendell.

The 83-year-old crime writer and peer said that the dawning realisation that reading for pleasure is no longer an everyday pastime to most people was something that “strikes terror” into her heart.

She said that despite claims that the publishing industry is in good health, it is now possible to “see” the decline of literature in national life.

The Man Booker-nominated novelist Philip Hensher agreed, adding that unlike even 20 years ago, most people no longer feel “ashamed” to say that they never read fiction.

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Admittedly, I live in a self-imposed vacuum. I surround myself with people who read and treasure books and literature and writers. I hang out at places book lovers tend to congregate (we may not be a social lot but our habitats have been identified.) I’m also a librarian. Currently unemployed, but a degreed librarian, which, though it guarantees nothing, is one career readers often gravitate toward.

I can’t keep up with the tide of literature-related articles, book reviews and author interviews – not to mention books. From my perspective, the never-ending flow is exasperating. Writers are publishing in staggering numbers, and all too many readers and reviewers are writing thoughts about them. Clearly, someone’s reading. Otherwise, why all the activity? People are a very lazy species. If there were no impetus, trust me, no one would show up to the party.

Then, there are e-readers. Sales are leveling off now, but it’s been a goldmine to Amazon, etc. Sites like Goodreads are hopping. Book groups proliferate. Granted, only Barnes & Noble are left standing, representing brick and mortar chains, but the internet’s usurped lots of businesses which can save loads not maintaining a storefront. Look at Amazon. They’ve gone inventory mad, but started as a virtual bookstore. One which drove the rest out by suspect practices, but a bookstore.

Are readers really becoming an endangered species? Perhaps those of us who are reading sustain the entire industry with our prolific purchases and endless chatter. I do more than my share, as do many I know. Are we few and proud holding up the publishing world?

Don’t get me wrong, I share feelings of irritation with those who insist there’s no time for reading, when they actually use that time for other pursuits. There are 24 hours in everyone’s day; it’s what you do with them that varies. I’d rather die leaving laundry undone than not finishing Dickens’ complete works. Book reviews matter more than dusty furniture, unvacuumed carpeting and dishes left in the sink.

Priorities. That’s what it’s about.

I’m growing weary of hearing claims reading’s doomed. Much as I respect Ruth Rendell, and love her books (more those under her Barbara Vine pseudonym), I need a little more persuading the act of reading is on life support. I’m growing weary of arguing back, too, but occasionally one must.

Do more people than ever proudly proclaim they don’t read and couldn’t care less what you think? Not to me, they don’t. I’d like to think they know better, out of self-preservation if nothing else. And I do hear a few, or have, when I worked a library reference desk. “I haven’t read a book in ages, what should I try…?” It’s befuddling to me how they managed to reach this juncture, but I can get a reader back with a book in short order. That’s one less pulled from the brink of ignorance.

The whole hue and cry just doesn’t pass the sniff test with me. Could be I’m so insulated I don’t see it, but color me ho hum. I’m reading. Right now, you’re reading, and I suspect if you’re reading this right now, it’s because you’re a reader. That, or I’m just irresistible, which I wouldn’t discount.

There are naysayers for everything. It just so happens reading’s getting a lot of (largely) undeserved bashing, from surprising sources, too. That is, writers. Maybe it’s an attention-getting ploy. It got mine, more from irritation than anything else. Guess it doesn’t matter the reason, as long as I noticed, like all advertising.

Is what we call traditional reading on the decline? Maybe. Attention’s not what it used to be, and humans distract easily. Is it dead or dying? I wouldn’t bury it just yet. Seems a bit premature.

So, RELAX. Pick up a book and relax. Enough said, Rendell & Co. Message received, but refuted. Run off now, and write something. We heard you loud and clear. See? We are listening.

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3 thoughts on “Are readers an endangered species?

  1. Chris Sullivan

    Statistically, book sales for last year were not as good as the previous year but ebook sales were up in the US alone. In the UK the printed book sales were down by nearly £98 million but ebook sales more than made up for that. I find it hard to believe that people are reading less when I see the proliferation of book review blogs. There is also a rise in membership to such book reading sites as Goodreads and The Reading Room etc. I wonder if authors who talk about the death of reading are speaking from a too rigid insular point of view? Anyway, read on and blog on.

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  2. Lisa

    I suppose there will always be those who rip out their hair while running in circles, screaming themselves hoarse about society’s cultural hopelessness. All I know is I’m finding loads of great writing I can’t keep up with, and loads of writing about writing. That’s where my angst lies, in my ability to keep ahead of the curve. This whole argument about reading just keeps going ’round and ’round. It’s true we have more competition for our attention than ever before but those who will read, will read.

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  3. Chris Sullivan

    You’re right when you wrote that ‘those who will read, will read’. The hope is that those same people pass that love of reading onto the next generation be it their children, those they teach or those they come into contact through other means.

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