Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Death of Reading - Elen Caldecott

I have heard from two different people this week that reading is in decline. One was a friend on a writing forum who just had a feeling he was right. The second was in the Guardian, so I took it slightly more seriously... for about two seconds.

The theory is, that there are so many other forms of entertainment these days, the internet, video games, text messages, Sky plus boxes, bionic arms... that there’s no time left for books. We are all assaulted from every direction by things that yearn to amuse us. Our time is no longer our own and that like-it-or-not we will find ourselves playing Resident Evil 4 for three hours a night before switching on Celebrity Come Dining on Ice. The world has gone to hell in an electronic handcart.

But, it’s not true, is it?
For a number of reasons.

First of all, I’m not convinced that there ever was a time when we spent all our leisure time reading. Yes, sure, maybe some Victorian families read to each other after dinner, but only the ones who weren’t working shifts down in the cotton mines. Certainly, when I was growing up in the 1980s in Wales, the idea that we should sit down and read aloud to each other after a meal would have been met with disbelief, then laughter. After all, Coronation Street was on.

And, even if we did have leisure time for reading, I’m not sure how many people read for fun. My guess is that it has always been a minority interest. I was definitely the only one in my junior school who did. Admittedly, it was a very small school; there were 10 people in my year. So, 10% of us (me) read for fun; All the other kids had BMXs and He-man figures and Mr Frostys and there was one wondrous day when even I put down my book because Hayley got a ZX-Spectrum and we could play Space Invaders. I never saw anyone else in my street read anything other than the Beano for fun.

Finally, most crucially, just because we have Facebook and Avatar and iPads doesn’t mean you have to surround yourself with them. If you want to read a book, well, what’s stopping you? The digital world isn’t being beamed onto the back of our eyeballs just yet! As another of my favourites shows from the 80s said, ‘why don’t you just switch off your TV set and go out and do something less boring instead?’

Like read a book.

Elen's Facebook Page


steeleweed said...

Having grown up in the 'cotton mines' (and still laboring therein) I read. That said, I agree it is a minority activity. Not sure if this results from lack of education or just 'different strokes for different folks'.

It has been said that the art of conversation is learning to listen. Similarly, the art of reading is imagination.
Readers don't come to the process empty-handed (empty minded?)
Serious readers always bring something - it's a partnership between author and reader.
Some people have nothing to offer. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Rosalind Adam said...

Children need to be shown the joy of reading and sadly this no longer happens in primary schools.

When I was at school I loved the story at the end of the afternoon. I can still remember many of the books that were read to us. It always sent me rushing to the library to get them out and read them for myself. How can educators justify their present use of novels? Teachers must use extracts for grammar, vocab and various other exercises. The children never hear the entire story or have the desire to read it for themselves because they've rung the extract dry and it no longer has a fascination for them.

It's time teachers rebelled and started reading whole novels to their classes once. Let's show children how much fun reading can be.

Rosalind Adam said...

Sorry to comment again but I've just been told by some Twitter friends that novels are once again being read in schools. Will be interested to see if children coming through the system now have any greater love of novels than when I was a teacher (about 10 yrs ago) and told there was not time for novel reading.

Leslie Wilson said...

Nobody in our family ever read aloud to each other, since I was quite small and had piccy books read to me. Usually my mother - cup of staggeringly strong coffee in hand - was reading whatever she was studying herself to death with at the time, my grandmother was reading her Catholic prayerbook through a pair of NHS specs held together by a safety pin,my brother and I were reading novels ranging from Swallows and Amazons to Candide. I can't remember what my father was reading. The only time anyone read aloud was when Phil got adolescent and started to read Freud and then read that aloud, proposing analytic explanations for various of my father's behaviours, thus eliciting the desired outrage and blazing row, which caused my grandmother to get down on her knees and pray, which was as peace-making as throwing fat on a fire. That was when we lived in Kendal and had no central heating. When we moved to Nottingham and Phil and I had heated bedrooms we decamped there to read to ourselves. I always favoured eating apples while reading, which rather hampers the reading-aloud..

Elen Caldecott said...

Oh, I love the idea of praying over Freudian rows! thanks, Leslie!

Linda Strachan said...

Despite the all too frequent wailing over the demise of books and reading it hasn't happened yet and I don't think it will.

Despite all the other distractions, disappearing into a book is one of the simple pleasures in life that crosses all boundaries.

With books of so many varieties they appeal to pretty much everyone. There are secret readers and those who shout about books from the rooftops. Whether they enjoy picture books or heavy tomes, audio books, ebooks, large print or Braille versions, books bought in bookshops,supermarkets, online or borrowed from the library, or from friends, fiction, non fiction, graphic novels and coffee table books. There is a book out there for pretty much everyone and new readers being born every day.

Don't you just wish the people who keep moaning about the death of books or reading would spend more time celebrating their amazing variety and popularity instead.

Gillian Philip said...

And I don't think we should underestimate the tactile attraction of a book. I'm not anti-iPad or Kindle, far from it, but the feel of a new book in your hands is something you can't replicate. Crisp new pages and a shiny uncreased cover: what's not to like? Even when it's Martine McCutcheon or Katie Price I like the actual physical design of it. And then the softening and the smell of it as it gets older, and the creases where you marked a chapter last time you read it (I know, I know, I'm going to hell)...

When I was quitting smoking I remember being told that one thing I would miss unexpectedly would be the feel of the packet. It's so perfectly designed and that was intentional; it fits so beautifully in your hand; you flick up the lid and close it and it feels so satisfying. (Note: don't try this at home and it's not worth taking it up for the feel of the packet, OK...)

A book is the same. It's got a perfect, comforting design (and you can take it to read in the bath). Since books don't give you lung cancer (unless you smoke them), I can't imagine that tactile deliciousness will ever lose its appeal.

Elen Caldecott said...

Linda and Gillian - quite!

BucksWriter said...

My mother trained as a librarian so a love of books and reading was probably in my DNA.

It was further encouraged by fortnightly trips to our local library where I would happily lose myself for an hour before picking the maximum number of books allowed and pouring over them as soon as we got home. I learnt so much from these childhood trips and feel a bit sad for any child who doesn't have the chance or the desire to explore new worlds in this way.

Mum's house is still an absolute treasure-trove of books (all perfectly shelved of course) and so is mine (albeit with a more ramshackle approach to classification) yet her sister won't have books in her house because they look messy and my brother reads nothing but rugby magazines.

Maybe that DNA theory doesn't hold water after all :-)but there are still enough of us who are passionate about the printed word to avoid extinction for now!