Saturday, March 16, 2013

Why Read?

 One of my jobs is substitute teaching in local high schools.  I've asked students if they know anyone who owns an e-reader, since the writers/readers loops I'm on are filled with people who seriously think that everyone is on their second or third generation reader.  There are usually a few hands that go up, as students admit their mother might have an e-reader, or even some of them might have one, or use their I-pads to read books. But they are distinctly in the minority. 
Invariably when I ask the classes if they prefer paperbacks, the students who do like to read, those who often have books open while they are supposed to be doing worksheets, will insist they prefer to hold an actual book in their hands.  The rest of the students will look at me as if I'd just asked if they kill and butcher their own meats before they eat.  When I query further, what usually comes out is that for most of the teens, the idea of reading for pleasure is an anathema.  They read what they have to, for classes.  They can hardly wait until they are done with high school so they won't have to read anymore, (many seem to think college won't require reading!  I chuckle warmly to myself at their naivety.)  

This idea of reading as being onerous and not pleasurable surely must be the origin of the statistics that proclaim the "average" American adult hasn't read an entire book in six years.  That's right, at least six years. Wow. The first time I read that I was stunned.  I learned to read from my mother before I was in kindergarten; she had me read her newspapers while she was cooking. By first grade I was reading Shakespeare out loud to her. As I got older, my tastes have continually evolved, but to me it was a natural progression to become an English major when I got to college.  My parents strongly objected, Dad telling me I was wasting his hard-earned money on a degree that would allow me to quote Shakespeare to diners while I served them their food.  I hate the fact that he was right since I've learned subsequently that no one in the business world values the erudite, well-read intellectual. But I made my choices and after years of writing, I've ended up with two part-time bread-money jobs and I write when I can make the time. 

But as authors, it behooves us to understand why the vast majority of adults don't read...or if they do, it's magazines, or e-zines these days, devoted to specific interests, like sports or porn.  What is it about reading they find distasteful?  Is it because it's hard work, to think about the words you're reading? I can't understand that way of thinking, since reading has always been my ticket to escape from reality.  How else can you live someone else's life?  How else can you understand intimately what it was like to live in another era of time, or to experience historical events as they were happening? Through books I've had "conversations" with people who were long dead before I was born, yet after reading their words, the ideas they had in their brains can now live in mine.  What could be more interesting?  I'll never know exactly what it is like to be a man, or to be born and raised in a different country or time period, but I can read books written in first-person and catch a glimmer of what that particular person thought about life.  I can study human behavior in books, and look around me to see the evidence that the author was correct, or in error.  I can escape from the boredom of the everyday routine nature of life by temporarily imagining myself to be the hero/heroine of whatever fiction I'm reading, and I can become magnificent and important for a short time.  How can something that is habit-forming and addictive, yet not deleterious to your health, be shunned as if it was a disease?  How can people not flock to reading to allow them to dream of bigger and better worlds?

I realize I'm preaching to the choir here, because if you didn't like to read and write, you wouldn't be here.  The oldest of my four kids didn't like to read, but I used every trick I had ever learned and made up some new ones, to get him interested.  As adults, all of my kids make the time to read.  But what about people whose parents aren't English teachers?  How do we reach them, to get them to see the possibilities contained within the pages of books: the cheapest, least fattening, legal, and totally healthy way to pleasure yourself?

If you want to learn about my books, please visit me at: www.fionamcgier.com
I write contemporary erotic romance, but my stories incorporate what I think about things like the eternal struggle between the sexes, the importance of family, and the nature of the society we experience in the western world.


Tina Donahue said...

What a great blog, Fiona!

You ask what is it about reading that people find distasteful. I believe the answer is - thinking.

In this country, we're taught not to think. It's a nerdy, foolish, pointless thing to do. We're rugged individualists, right? Rugged individualist act. They don't think. They don't feel.

We've dumbed down the population to the point where America is a joke to the rest of the world. Some Republicans think science is the work of the devil and none of it is valid. Wow. Who would have thought anyone (except a lunatic) in this century would be spouting such nonsense.

Schools are overburdened with kids who've have no discipline ever, not enough to eat and whose parents couldn't care less. Taking those kids' weapons away and keeping them from setting fire to the school or maiming each other is the priority, not reading.

Like you, I began reading before kindergarten. I was devouring Dickens in third grade. I lived at the library.

It's sad that anyone has missed out on the magic of books.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Welcome to the Id generation where instant gratification is king. Hell, why read a book if you can wait until the movie version comes out? I don't think young people view reading as a pleasure, but as hard work. They have to learn to read, then they have to retain and interpret what they've read. As Tina said, they have to actually think--God forbid. TV has replaced intellectual pursuits.
I was lucky growing up. My dad would not let us have a TV and, at the time, I resented that all the other kids had one, but not us. I read books because they were fun. I would take an old quilt down to the orchard and lay there under the apple tree to read. I went on adventures with Robert Louis Stevenson and learned about values from Louisa May Alcott. I love the heart wrenching twisty plots of Charles Dickens and dug into William Shakespeare.
I am so disappointed that today's kids don't appreciate a good book. What would they do if the grid broke down?
I do have to say that my 11 year old niece is an avid reader. She reads books like Wicked, the Hunger Games trilogy, and just finished Reached in the Ally Condle sci-fi trilogy. She gave the book to me and said, "Hurry up and read it, Auntie, so we can gossip about it." She made me proud. But she's not the norm these days.
Great blog, Fiona. You get us all stirred up and interested in a good conversation.

Harlie Reader said...

I love to read and it starts at home. My parents read a lot so my brother and I were taught at a very early age. Unfortunately, it didn't stick with my brother besides reading the newspaper.

My dad and I still share books (he is the reason I LOVE Jack Ryan and read Tom Clancy. Also, Grisham too.) My mom give me my first "dirty" book...Lucky by Sandra Brown and I've never looked back.

Our 7 yr old devours books. He loves the classic Winnie the Pooh stories, Diary of A Wimpy Kid series and is now into the whole Wizard of Oz books. My husband doesn't read books but he reads with our son every night. Never misses. He read to him in vitro, too. Oh and the whole Dr. Seuss books...yep, our son has read them and can recite them, too.

Great post Fiona! My English teachers growing up were AWESOME. :)


Kelli Scott said...

Half the gals in the office I work in have ereaders (and love to read), which is probably a 100% increase from a couple years ago.

Fiona McGier said...

I knew I was preaching to the choir here! But Kelli, did those women read before they had e-readers? Or do they read more now because their books are cheaper, and no one can see the covers, so no one knows if they're reading naughty books?

I'm always distressed when kids insist that reading is boring...it's work, yes. But as I used to tell my kids when they whined they were bored, "only boring people are bored." If you bring your intelligence and a desire to understand to any book, you can learn from it, enjoy it, and make it a part of you. If you regard reading as a chore that you are being forced against your will to do, you won't ever glean any insights into anything.

And yes, Tina, I think it is partly because reading IS work. Thinking is hard work until you get into the habit and it becomes second nature and as easy as breathing. And Sarah you are certainly right about instant gratification being the rule...so many times kids in school have whined and asked why they can't just watch the movie instead of having to read. I try to explain to them that reading requires active participation, and that watching TV is the most passive of activities, allowing your brain to leap right out of your skull and go grab a snack from the next room, because you won't ever miss it, since you don't need it to stare slack-jawed at the TV. They look at me as if I have grown a third eyeball. Then when I tell them I haven't watched anything on TV for the past 8 years or so, other than the occasional movie with pizza on Saturday night, they regard me with amazement, some even asking in awe, "What do you DO with yourself?"

That is so pitiful. And yes, Tina, the once-proud leader of so many disciplines in the world, is now a slacker of a follower. Sad.

Thanks for your comments! I was in Michigan visiting one of my sons with two of his siblings, and I got home late last night, then had errands to catch up with all day today. But I'm back now.

Fiona McGier said...

Oh, and Harlie, you are instilling more than the love of reading in your child. You are doing the biggest favor in the world for him! You are expanding his intelligence and ensuring that he won't ever settle for not learning new things.

Every time I apply to high schools (for jobs that go to the newbie grads and not to a middle-aged woman like me), there are at least 3-4 essay questions as part of the on-line application. Usually one of them asks: what is the most important thing you need to know about your students? I always say I need to know if the teenagers were read to as little kids, and did they enjoy it? Because I'm a big believer in reading out-loud, even to teenagers. Even the most reluctant reader can develop the ability to visualize the story in their minds that way.

I wish we could require all parents to read to their kids, but instead we insist on our right to raise our kids to be just like us...which isn't always in the best interests of the country, or humanity!

Harlie Reader said...

Fiona you should hear the stories that he makes up. They are so far out there but he is thinking and figuring out things in his head and not letting someone do that for him. Yes, he watches TV, plays Wii but his reading comprehension is beyond his school age (2nd grade) and he is already bugging me for a Kindle so I can download books on it for him, like I do. :)