When the AP did their recent poll on literacy, they found that one in four Americans didn’t read a book last year. I know a lot of people who found that news depressing, but my own reaction was more, “Rock! Three out of four people read a book last year!”
Let me just get one important fact out there—I’m not an optimistic person by nature. If I’m excited about a concert, when it starts I’m less, “This is gonna be great!” and more, “I hope the speakers don’t fall on anyone.” I worry—it’s just what I do. When I tell my mother I’m traveling, she usually replies with something comforting like, “I hope the plane stays up.” Me too. It’s in the genes. Which is to say: when people proclaim the death of the written word, and I of all people think, “You seriously worry too much…,” that’s saying something.
So 25 out of 100 people didn’t read a book last year. At least one or two of them must not be able to read, right? (Note to self: look up American illiteracy rates) And then you have people who just don’t like to read. I’m not thrilled with that fact, but I’m at peace with it. Because elsewhere in that group of 100 are people who read 20, 30, 40 books a year—folks for whom the written word can’t be replaced by TV, movies, the internet, or any other media yet to be created. Sure, we have more entertainment options now, and people have a little bit less time to read. But do we actually think books are so easily replaced?
When it comes right down it, there is little I find as satisfying as a great read, and it has nothing to do with any lack of affection on my part for every other type of entertainment.
Perhaps it’s because I’m consistently surrounded by book lovers (it comes with the job), but the chance that books will become passé seems a bit unlikely to me. All the people who were up in arms over this poll only were so because they’re readers. And readers are still in a majority.
What I do find unnerving is that other poll from a year or so back that indicated 80% of Americans wanted to write a book. First of all, that means that at least 5% of people who want to write a book didn’t read one in the past year. That is frightening. Truly. I honestly don’t believe someone can be a great writer without being well-read, let alone without being just…read. Beyond that, if four out of five people in the entire country are going to be sending query letters…that’s a lot of digging we’re going to have to do, not to mention a lot of awkward cocktail party chatter. “What do you do for a living? Oh! Well, let me tell you, I have the most wonderful idea for a book. It’s about kittens.” Scintillating stuff. There’s nothing like dodging the mother of the bride at a wedding after she tells you about her “brilliant” concept for a picture book about cheese. Not that I don’t love cheese.
I kid (mostly). I’ve said it before, and I still mean it: I love the slush pile and the feeling of potential when I dig in. It’s intimidating at times because there’s just so much, but finding something brilliant in the mass is such a thrill. Just like starting a book and finding yourself instantly hooked.
I digress… So why do you read? And why do you write? And am I overly optimistic in thinking books will always be around?