Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why People Don't Read

By James Curcio
I want to talk very briefly about what is a fairly complicated issue. That is often the case with blog posts. So bear with me.

Tell me if you have heard any statements like these lately:
"I used to read a lot, but I don't anymore really."
"I just can't seem to focus enough to read these days."
"I don't enjoy reading. I do too much of it on the computer at work as it is."
And so on. I hear these often as reasons why people don't read not just my books, but any books at all. My emotional response is somewhere between sadness and abject terror. If this is as much of an epidemic as it seems to be from the people I talk to, then we have a serious issue on our hands.

Many people have waxed philosophical about the cause of this disengagement. I have my own. (And of course, like everyone else, I believe mine is right.)

It comes down to something very simple. I've been reading a lot of Murakami lately, so I'll use him as an example.

It's hard to put your finger on Murakami's style, that's kind of what's distinctive about it. But it has a lot of emotional honesty, and that's surprisingly hard to pull off well.

The reader has to meet that more than halfway. But the reader has to meet anything more than halfway. Books are like maps to mental or emotional territories. We've still got to go there ourselves. From a lot of reviews that I read, I mean of other people's books, I feel like more and more readers expect a book to somehow reach out and knock them over the head the way a $100 million tentpole Hollywood movie can.

In other words, people have become so used to what I would call exclusively passive entrainment, that they no longer have derive pleasure from the additional effort that is required for active entrainment. When you read a book, it is triggering your imagination. The book is merely a guide, but it is coming to life inside of you. In fact, many times when people find a failing in a book, it is a failing in themselves. (Though certainly there are many ways that an author can fail their audience. Many, many ways. But if someone can't stand Jazz, even Coltrane is just blowing in the wind.) 

I offer you a challenge, if you are one of the people who has been making statements like the ones I began with: for one month, I challenge you to make yourself read for one hour, every day. That's it. One hour, every day. Could be on the bus. Could be at home. But do it at a time when you still have the mental energy to breathe life into what you are reading, because, remember, unlike the television or movie screen, a book depends on you. It's quite a responsibility, and an interesting relationship, shared in silence between author and reader. 

Choose books that are well-written, but which fall within your interest range. Obviously since you should be reading something new, you may need to ask someone for advice.

If after a month nothing has caught your attention, I don't know, man. Maybe you're a goner.

(Note: There's absolutely nothing wrong in my opinion with taking in narrative content from a screen. Some "readers" like to look down their nose, as if every episodic series is the intellectual and moral equivalent of Full House, and every movie is Snakes On A Plane. No. There is just something different about reading a book. Do both.) 


  1. I will bolster your theory with a totally unscientific piece of subjective observation: in my experience, people who prefer video gaming to television as their entertainment of choice are more likely to be readers - which makes sense, because gaming requires you to engage actively with the media, making decisions and reacting to a changing environment, rather than simply absorbing a television show or movie.

  2. Mind you, I ALSO enjoy watching shows and movies, obviously. It doesn't need to be an either-or.

  3. James....

    Add Chris Hedges: Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle to your reading list.

    Amazon Kindle. $8.52

    Fast read, 3 of 5 Stars from me. but worth the time.

    Cheers from LA (where I ready 42 books in 2011.....Yes some of us still read in LA!)

    mike whatley