Way back when…I was working in the Peace Corps and one of my jobs was to interview PCVs who had ETed. This was in late 1964 and early 1965 and I remember this blond surfer guy coming in for his exit interview. He couldn’t wait to get out of the Peace Corps, having been overseas (I think Malawi) for a matter of weeks. What went wrong, I asked him. Books, he said. Books? Now that was a new one . I waited for him to explain, which he was happy to do. He went onto describe how all the PCVs he saw overseas were carrying thick paperbacks and whenever there was a moment of ‘downtime’ they’d pulled out a paperback and start reading. He kept shaking his head, looking worried, and confessing, “I didn’t want that to happen to me.”
Clearly, he wasn’t a reader.
I thought about him when I read the results of the recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) entitled To Read or Not to Read. According to the NEA reading in America is in serious trouble. Take kids. Fewer than one-third of thirteen-year-olds read for pleasure everyday–a 14 % decline from two decades ago–while the percentage of seventeen-year-old non-readers doubled over the same period. Americans between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four watch television about two hours a day, the study reveals, but read for only seven minutes. Americans are reading fewer books of fiction, poetry, and plays.
One of the reasons kids say they don’t read is because it is “lonely.” They like text messaging, playful and interactive and connected with friends.
Remember when you were in college and ‘talked about books’ and everyone was reading the same book and discussing it? Well, that happens today only in reading clubs and perhaps with movies. No one sits around and talks about literature, or at least not my crowd.
Novelist Audrey Niffenegger (she wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife) thinks the reason is because novelists aren’t giving readers narratives. Writers are giving the reader less and less and making them work harder and harder. “People got the idea,” she said, “that everything was going to be like Finnnegan’s Wake, and everyone just said, ‘Okay, we’re going to the movies.’”
In Poets & WritersMagazine I read how a former Random House executive, Susan Danziger, and her techie husband, have come up with a clever idea that might get people reading novels. They have a new website that e-mails serialized installments of classic books to readers every day. The website is DailyLit. They launched it over a year ago and so far they provide readers free delivery of over four hundred books that, by virtue of their age, have become part of the public domain, including six different Mark Twain titles, fifteen by Charles Dickens, and twenty-six by Shakespeare. They are also adding recently published books. The titles are e-mailed in small installments (approximately a thousand words) that Danziger says most readers will be able to finish in “under five minutes.” DailyLit also features on-line forums in which readers can discuss books as they’re delivered.
Readers can browse DailyLit’s offerings by title, author, and genre; once they’ve selected a title, they can then choose to receive an e-mail every day, only on weekends, or three times a week, as well as the time at which they want to be emailed during each prescribed day.
Check out: http://www.dailylit.com/