Friday, March 31, 2017

Are we living in a time of the decline of the American book lover?

I wonder a lot about the place of the reading of books in our culture. There's a gender gap that begins in the early years, with girls and women more likely to be frequent book-readers than men. I've read that this might have something to do with the tendency of boys to be uncomfortable with school and therefore with things they associate with school, like reading. The reasons for that our interesting but not to my purpose here.

For me, though, reading was never primarily associated with school obligations and drudgery. It was learned in the home, and its primary associations were related to the joy of discovery. Schooling might do its best to destroy such connections but is not likely to succeed.

The main reason men give for not reading much (we are not, of course, talking about the reading of websites, or even newspapers, but of book reading), is that they don't have time, but it's really a matter in the end of reading not seeming worthwhile to them, as opposed to other activities. And yet this is less the case with women.

You see that reflected in the publishing trends: more books by women and marketed toward women. I'm sure there's plenty of sociological chatter on this subject, and more still from education experts. I'm inclined to think that, as in my case, a habit of book reading is rooted in family experience, not in the classroom, so then as more of the educational responsibilities at one time seated in family life are now ceded to the schools, which have proven largely ineffective in the creation of joyous and eager readers, especially among boys, well, you have yourself a cultural trend.

I'm a librarian by trade, so the people I work with read books and talk about reading, both the men and women. Someone just routinely starts a conversation by saying, "Hey, I'm reading this great book," etc. Much the same as conversations about movies or a TV series. You watch, you enjoy, you tell people. The same goes for books.

Among men (that is, men who are not librarians), in my experience, this kind of conversation almost never happens. In fact, if I were to bring up a book among men I might even engender an embarrassed silence, and the inevitable, "I really don't have time to read."

Another typical response is to reach back in memory to the last book they've read, perhaps as far back as high school, and bring that up. You say, "Hey, I'm reading this great book on [whatever the subject]." They respond, "Have you ever read Stephen King's [insert SK title here]? I read and back in high school. It's really awesome." [I live in Maine, and it's remarkable how often this response comes up in any conversation about books.]

Among Christians the story is much the same. The women in my church have a book group. The men would probably never even consider such a thing. An old pastor of mine used to tell his people that "leaders are readers," but that sort of reading is often obligatory self-improvement. People approach it with a task orientation and are glad to get it over with.Where is the joy in books among Christians?

Also, Christians often hold reading to a different standard than that to which they hold movie-viewing or TV watching. For example, they will be quite willing to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster, often tolerating plenty of moral compromise in the process, but when it comes to reading it has got to be a Christian book or nothing.There is a kind of spiritual-utilitarianism in play here. I will only put myself to that sort of labor if it is verifiably good for my soul.

The Washington Post says there is certainly a decline in literary reading. The Atlantic a few years ago ran an article called The Decline of the American Book Lover. I think that title really gets to what I'm talking about: not just reading, but the love of reading. If there really is a decline in the love of reading, the love of books, if a decreasing number of people see themselves as eager and joyful readers for whom books represent an important part of their self-identity and their engagement with the world, well, that's a bad thing, methinks.

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