Recently sifting through my modest “Gentle Diva” blogs, I realized that nearly A YEAR has elapsed since I’d written about poor Mohammed Ali. That’s a disgrace! Am I already tapped out on opinions? Of course not! I’m just as lazy and procrastinating as the next would-be, “soi-disant” writer!
I think I want to write about books: why fewer and fewer people are reading them. But first, a slight digression:
There are plenty of things I love about my job as a literary agent but mostly, I adore the infinite variety: the fact that a single day can include flowers from a lovingly rejected stranger; a magazine sale to More for an excerpt from a first novel; a reassuringly intelligent editorial conversation about a bold structural direction for a novel’s ending; the perusal of a royalty statement that is, for once, comprehensible at first glance.
But—hand’s down—what I love MOST about my job as an agent is that it makes me way more interesting than I actually am. When I was a publishing kid and worked at Doubleday, I read what was then a bound galley of a book called ROOTS, by Alex Haley. At a non-publishing party soon after, I naturally talked about the book in some detail. Complete strangers were riveted, they held onto every word—I was so scintillating! This was my very first conscious memory of pure gratitude that I’d chosen to work in a field where the exchange and currency of ideas could shift any conversation on a dime.
I mean, what if I’d chosen to crawl my way to a mid-level position in sewage management? What if I’d eventually landed a sales job, opening up fresh territories for Iams Dog Food, with a concentration on their newest blend of chicken and liver? How about if I’d stumbled into the vintage retail business, or the importation of artisanal cheeses from Lithuania?
I’ve been so lucky! The Gentle Diva knows this; she goes onto her creaky knees at least once daily, to thank the gods of all religions that she got a job in publishing, especially after failing the typing test not once but thrice!
Here’s what I now, more than thirty-five years later, find so disturbing: people just aren’t buying and reading books much anymore. Forgive me for making this breathtakingly unoriginal observation! I know, I know, everyone’s talking about the decline of hardcovers, the decline in e-book sales now that the Kindle or the Nook have been replaced with tablet computers, the squirrely downward sales of trade paperbacks, the mass market sales being “off” by more than twenty percent. And people seem to think this is quite okay, right? I mean, we’re all still reading, we’re just not reading BOOKS quite as much, but hey, we’re keeping up with People magazine online, with celebrity gossip, with the latest wildfires in Colorado or whatever is going on, or not, in Syria or Egypt or Afghanistan, with the continued leaks at Fukushima…
Well, of course, the Gentle Diva insists that this decline in book buying—and book reading—is distinctly NOT alright!
Why, oh why, is this happening?
First of all, there was once a time when being “well-read” was considered an admiring, honorable description of a person. It didn’t necessarily mean that you’d mastered the Great Books at St. John’s, the “canon”, it just meant that you were well educated and proud of it. You could carry on a decent conversation on a wide variety of subjects and maybe even write a declarative sentence. Today, there is a kind of bragging, nearly defiant Yahooism creeping around the edges of my many conversations. I had a dinner party about a year ago and the first thing this newly met guest said to me was, “You know, I haven’t read a book in over twenty-five years, not since college”. This guy was actually PROUD of his statement, he was clear that reading books was, uh, uncool these days. The Gentle Diva acknowledges that this observation is clearly anecdotal. Tell you one thing: the guy was never invited for another meal.
Since my parenting is kind of like the rolling admissions of motherhood, with kids ranging from ages 32 to 11, I’ve been around parents of different generations for what seems like forever. It used to be that when you took your oldest kid to ballet or tennis, the mother or babysitter would sit through the lesson with Junior, usually an irascible two or three-year old. The Mom or sitter would get through the tennis session with a bag of well-worn favorite books, looking up at the older kid only when a wicked serve was about to be executed.
This has now all changed. I haven’t seen that essential reading bond happen for at least two years: now, the Mom or the sitter frantically works at her i-phone while the toddler (just as) frantically works at his own electronic game. It’s parallel play, circa 2013.
Or let’s take a look at baby showers. During the last three baby showers I’ve attended, not a single guest has given a children’s book to an unborn kid. Two of those showers were among publishing folks, so perhaps books aren’t sexy since we’re so surrounded by them? Does book familiarity breed contempt? It’s all darling Baby Gap slipper socks or giant teddy bears or practical baby monitors. It’s anything but a book, either a classic or a contemporary runaway best-selling kid’s book, doesn’t matter, the message is the same: books are outré, they’re arcane and the baby would just eat the paper, right?
Then, of course, there’s television. Let’s be honest here: television today is fantastic, right? From “The Sopranos” to “Breaking Bad”, “Deadwood”, “Mad Men”, “The Wire”, “Game of Thrones”, it’s all just a vast bonanza of tantalizing, addictive television. Think for just a moment about television shows from the past: “Bewitched” or “The Brady Brunch”; “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Munsters”. Remember “Mr. Ed”??? With most of the sheer banality of past television programming, it was fairly easy to stay literate, to simply read a book instead.
I recently had lunch with my friend, Will Schwalbe, who just last year published a wonderful memoir about his Mom, called THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB. Yes, this is a plug and no, I don’t represent him. Anyway, we were trying to sort out just what had happened to book-reading and he offered up three thoughts about this decline: First of all, statistics reveal that most parents, especially working parents, spend more hours daily with their kids than they used to. They want to and they feel they must, so they go the extra mile, well beyond the supper/homework/bedtime routine.
Secondly, Will blames JetBlue Airlines: they were apparently the first airline to install those little bitty television sets in front of each individual plane seat. According to JetBlue’s CEO, David Neeleman, “With up to 36 channels of satellite TV on offer, our customers will feel like they’re at home in the air, selecting from the best of news, sports, comedy, music and movies.” Remember when you put aside your three books a year for your annual vacation, which officially began with that long air flight if you were lucky enough to avoid traveling to Yellowstone National Park in an RV? Most likely, those three books per vacation have now been reduced to one really special book, and good luck if you’re an unknown first novelist!
The further observation Will made had to do with exercise. We’re all maniacs for exercise and so many of us either get up at an ungodly hour to stagger onto a treadmill or we visit the over-crowded gym after work, often before the chaos of kids. We’re determined to stay fit, especially us Boomers; since we’re all such over-achievers, a five-pound weight gain represents punishing exercise rituals for weeks, even months to come.
So after work, after exercise, and perhaps after kids who are grabbing/deserving MORE time, is it any wonder we’re in a comatic state by 10:00 p.m.? That we try to read a book but complain that we fall asleep instead? Isn’t it really easier to TiVo the latest episode of “Scandal” or “Revenge”, since we’ve worked so hard and don’t feel quite “up” to that collection of Nineteenth century essays?
Honestly, it’s a wonder we read books at all!
But the Gentle Diva insists, no IMPLORES you to please read books! If I can do it, you can. I’m a slow, painstaking reader—I never learned to skip or skim, I missed that class right along with typing and driver’s ed. But I do read at least forty-five minutes a night, it’s an ancient, time-worn habit, and that reading time is sacred to me. And it’s not, I stress, business-related; I’m not talking about manuscript draft reading, transom-reading, I ‘m talking about books already published that have come into my life via my Three Person Rule: if three people outside the publishing industry recommend that I read a book, I always make a point of reading it. Sometimes, this informal rule can take years to enhance my reading enlightenment, other times, like with Fifty Shades of You -Know -What, it can take three days. (And no, that isn’t a plug and no, I don’t represent her.)
Besides, book-reading is actually good for your health, did you know this? Cool, no? According to Maryanne Wolf, the author of PROUST AND THE SQUID: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, any book-reading, the immersive experience of it, causes an immediate boost in mental acuity. It’s a regular memory and focus work-out, with visualization skills sharpened! And get this: according to a study from the University of Buffalo, book readers tend to be more compassionate, empathetic, even! One final stat, you’ll love this one: according to the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, people who read books for pleasure are 52% less likely than “reluctant readers” to develop cognitive impairment.
So the next time Aunt Erma’s birthday comes around, ease up on the cashmere scarf, buy her a book instead. Try, hard, to avoid the ease and convenience of Amazon; go on, find an Indie and buy a book, especially if you’re already in this wonderful industry called publishing!
Well folks, the Gentle Diva has, it seems, made up a bit for lost time, NOT to suggest that she’s acquired verbal incontinence. Time to settle down to a really great book, am slowly making my way through all of Jess Walter’s backlist and the guy has a lot on his mind, good night!