THINGS LEARNED FROM SURFING THE WWW: Why People Read

 

Part of one of my book shelves


 I’ve been accused of living inside my own head, which has only made me wonder, where else should I live? I’m still looking for an answer. Which may explain why I spend so much time idly typing questions into my web browser. Today, my question was: 

Why don’t people read novels?
We’ve all heard dire predictions about our increasingly “dumbed-down” society, as well as the alarming slide in numbers of bookstores, as well as the pitifully small number of people who actually buy books any more.
When I was a child, I recall that even in my mill town milieu, where many adults were unable to complete high school due to the need to support their families, there were people who had read the current best sellers and could discuss them. Not many, not nearly most people, but some. Popular wisdom says most people don’t read at all now.

Except that this is mostly not true.

According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center,  “As of January 2014, some 76% of American adults ages 18 and older said that they read at least one book in the past year. Almost seven in ten adults (69%) read a book in print in the past 12 months, while 28% read an e-book, and 14% listened to an audiobook.” And, no, people are not abandoning print books for e-books. Most people who read, read both. (http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/01/16/a-snapshot-of-reading-in-america-in-2013/)

But what are they reading, one wonders. I don’t have an exact answer, but a casual surf of the web, listening in at message boards–a decidedly unscientific sampling, to be sure, but the Pew Research folks did not consult me when designing their survey–brought us these answers to my question about why people don’t read novels, and I think it may give a clue to what, as well as why, people read. 

Here are some comments I found expressed several times:

They don’t educate or provide useful information 

They require little creativity

I know all the words in them already

Writing one teaches you more than reading one
So some people don’t see how a novel, for example, is relevant or useful to their lives. Leaving aside the people who know all the words in existence, I am shaking my head over the comments about novels not being creative, but it does remind me of a person I know who insists that every books she picks up reminds her of another she’s read, so she puts it down, looking for something new and fresh. Rather than looking for words she doesn’t know, she’s looking for ideas, plots, or characters she hasn’t encountered before. 

Still puzzled, I decided to turn the question around, and phrase it more positively. Why do people read novels? 

These were some answers I encountered:


To find out-of-the ordinary possibilities

To entertain oneself

To gain new knowledge

To relieve boredom

Gives something to talk about

More interesting than TV or movies

Mental stimulation

Allow you to envision another place

Understand why people do what they do

Expose self to other cultures

To understand views of others

Fun–like dreaming while awake

To unwind, relax

To think about human nature

Learn without making mistakes of characters


I assume that the folks looking for fun or relaxation, relief from boredom or mental stimulation, or to have something to talk about around the water cooler might be our mystery, romance, and maybe the fantasy/supernatural folks who are into vampires, etc. Those books tend to be relaxing and entertaining, though some can also be challenging, as well. 

And maybe those who are interested in other cultures and the out-of-the-ordinary might be those the editors and agents keep telling me want to be transported, or to learn about people far from their daily lives. “Gypsies are good,” they tell me, but could you make them, well, Gypsier? I assume those folks, or at least the editors and agents, like my friend who keeps picking up and putting down books, might also like it if I wrote about a twenty-something savant with a penchant for romancing spies. Why would someone do that, I can hear them saying. Indeed, why? 

And just like that, I find the sweet spot: The folks who want to learn about human nature, to learn form the mistakes of others, to gain some new knowledge, those are my people. You write about good, ordinary people, said Dorothy Allison, and your work reminds me of Ron Rash (this last left my heart pounding.) get those people in trouble and then let them find their way out, and that’s enough for anyone who really cares about human nature, she suggested. 

My last novel was about a girl who feels left out and abandoned and totally confused about where she wanted to call home. My next is about a young woman who finds that what’s he though was hers, isn’t, and only the greed of her ancestors made her who she thought she was. What happens when she doesn’t want to be that person anymore. Why are people greedy? Why do they scheme to take what is not theirs? 

I don’t know. But I intend to find out. To find out what? Everything, one thing at a time. That’s the fun in writing novels, to me, and also the fun and gain in reading them. And I don’t know all the words yet, but I’m working on learning them. 

Why do you read, and what? I really want to know. What’s on your shelf?  

 

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