Read that, not this!


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!

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10 Responses to Read that, not this!

  1. What a great blog post-I love how it’s written and the Diva’s engaging voice!

  2. Thea Phipps says:

    I taught myself to read, and by the time I was in school, I was never without a book. But I will have to admit that my reading-for-pleasure has dropped off dramatically. And it has for only one reason. I read mysteries, and I find very few good ones out there. I know it’s subjective, but I can’t help it. I don’t like graphic blood, guts, and violence. I don’t like sadism. I don’t like scenes that take place in dumpsters, nor characters that have to sniff their armpits to see if they’re clean enough to go to a cocktail party. I’m tired of behavioral disorders that are supposed to make characters interesting. I can’t identify with the main character if he is a dog, cat, or parrot. I dislike the dysfunctional families where the Mom-sleuth is tired, divorced, off men, and screamed at by her bratty little criminals-in-the-making. I miss books with atmosphere. I miss characters that are truly interesting. I miss books that do NOT take place in Innercity, Anystate. I wish publishers didn’t slavishly follow trends, no matter how soulless. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a trend just because those books are the only ones out there. I miss books. I miss mysteries. I miss authors who don’t write to a formula that wasn’t that imaginative to begin with. I wish the better books had better advertising. I just can’t find them.

  3. I came on here to discover your submission guidelines and found myself pulled into your blog, of all things.

    Regarding reading, I can’t for the life of me believe how illiterate most people have become. The dawning of texting has robbed virtually everyone of the basic ability to string two coherent words together (forget sentences!). Teenagers in particular seem to speak a new form of Greek, with acronyms and abbreviations for even the most innocuous words.

    As for the act of reading, I’ve been an avid reader for much longer than I’ve been a writer. My wife and I both make it a point to read virtually every night before bed – the extension of a practice that has existed since we were children, has spanned the breadth of our 22 years together, and shows no end in sight. I can’t imagine not unwinding from a long day with a story to lose myself in.

    All that aside, thank you for a pleasant few minutes spent just…reading 🙂

  4. I connected with your words. Thank you.

    I kept a teeny version of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE in the side pocket of my purse. I read the book to my daughter, and eventually she read it to me, as we the filled spaces in our days, between appointments and grocery shopping. I carried the book around until the day I offered it to another mother and her child. After all, a mother once gave the book to my daughter and me.

  5. J Deane says:

    I remain ever hopeful that this trend might be reversed in time. Perhaps I’m naive, but as a first-time author of fiction, as I research agents, I can’t help but notice how many of them are looking for new YA books and authors. I don’t write YA, but I’m glad to see this–get them hooked while they’re young, I say. Show them the joy of reading so they have a better chance of carrying the habit into their adult lives and sharing it with their own children.
    Maybe Ms. Rowling has done us a favor, the payoff of which is just around the corner? It might take a decade or so, but maybe there will be greater demand as those adults become nostalgic for the feel of paper in their hands. Everyone will be sick of Facebook by then, right? How can a status update about even the most delicious salad one had for lunch compete with their memories of what they used to read–tales of wizardry and intrigue? I repeat like a mantra “They’ll be back. They’ll be back.”

    [Perhaps this view represents the worst kind of ‘spin’ on the catastrophic loss of readership in recent years. But I have to stay positive and hopeful, or I wouldn’t be able to sit down and write every day.] Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

  6. a. d. norton says:

    I wanted to catch up on a new round of submissions for me and was glad to discover your wonderful post! It’s so true, what you say. As a mom in California, I can’t even tell you how most moms/people don’t read anymore… it’s a thing… you have to seek out. However, in & around LA, there is a thriving lit “scene” which is great. I loved what you wrote about being in a profession which values ideas — that’s why I love writing — the inspiring and whittling away at my ideas… it allows me to clarify what I actually think!
    (Great post, as a teen I met Alex Haley at my theater arts school).

  7. a. d. norton says:

    PS — my most recent favorite book is “Where’d You Go Bernadette?” by Maria Semple — loved it! It’s sooo good. I also tried, stopped, and tried again Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” which is good but let’s just say, challenging… I read “The Breach” and everyone’s raving about it but I thought it was just kind of meh, for me personally.

  8. I do not understand people who don’t read. I have never been able to understand it. I love books and I love reading, I always have. It’s always been a way for me to escape into another world if I was stressed out or anxious, not feeling well, bored or lonely, having problems at home, or having writer’s block. I have always loved libraries-the hushed but joyful anticipation of finding that special creation to spend the next week with, the smell of all those pages and covers, their ink calling to me. I read every single day without question. Sometimes I read until I finish the book, even if that means all night. I received a Kindle for Christmas and while it’s nice for the internet if I need to look something up, I just can’t let go of holding a real book in my hands, turning its bound pages and feeling its crispness underneath my fingers. I hope this is just a trend and that people will realize how truly important reading is. I hope they impart to the children the sheer joy of being lost in a story. I have never forgotten it and continue to find it with each new book I read. Every day. Without question.

  9. Julie Ross Mackenzie says:

    I’m so glad to have read this post! It brought up a grievance of mine, being the lack of desire to read on the part of so many. Reading for me is a passion ever since I realized the alphabet made words. Our house was full of books and the influence of what those books contained was evident at the dinner table when conversation turned to a variety of subjects, interpretations and opinion.

    Who wouldn’t want to travel in the mind to far-off places or challenge the brain to stretch and bend? On top of that, why can’t people realize that when you read, there’s no reliance on anyone other than yourself and your local library or bookstore. There’s no need for assurance that your tech necessities are charged or you have the right channel or venue for entertainment delivery? Your access is any time and anywhere with any thing. And, from the studies cited in your post, reading can be darn good for you and your mental acuity.

    You have no control over a body aging, but you sure have a choice when it comes to how your mind ages. My dad who led those conversations so many years ago, still read in his later years and, at 92, could still actively reason and recall.

  10. J.C. Prevost says:

    First, I never watched any of the TV shows you mentioned-never heard of most of them. In fact, I read all the time, and mostly I’m reading more than one book at a time. My wife reads, my daughter reads, and my granddaughter reads, and at Christmas and birthdays all we give each other is books. Alas, I can’t get my son or his son to read anything. I try to write novels, but nothing has been published, yet (I hope). I believe you have a blog. If so, please tell me how to get there. I would like to follow you-if that’s the right thing to do.

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