How often do you hear that? Well, probably not that much if we’re being literal about it, but if you were to go out and do a quick survey of passers-by on the street and ask them these three questions: “What are you watching?”; “What are you playing?” and “What are you reading?” the vast majority of people will gleefully rattle off the latest TV show, movie or video game they’re currently digging, but when it comes to books don’t be surprised if many of them say they’re reading nothing or simply forgot you asked a third question as they got so worked up telling you how great Community or Dark Souls 3 is.
Why is that? I sincerely don’t think that it’s a case that hectic lifestyles combined with instant access to social media, internet and entertainment as squeezing books back, though that’s certainly a factor. Nearly all forms of entertainment have benefited from the digital age, including books if we’re honest, but not nearly to the same degree of success that other media has. And I’m sorry, but the constant trumpeting of “hectic lifestyle! No free time!” is utter bunk. People only associate the shrinking of free time with themselves, not as a collective whole. And surprise surprise, people get older, move up in the workplace, start families and generally get busier. People may get a more hectic lifestyle as they move up their own personal ladders, but as a whole humankind has never had such a rich abundance of free time. We can now watch movies in cars, listen to music while walking from A to B, and play mobile games on the toilet. Don’t look at me like that, we’ve all done it. This is before we get into the real pure free time in evenings and weekends, when people will happily boast binge-watching whole seasons of Game of Thrones.
And yet it’s very rare that you hear about binge-reading. Oh sure, reading sessions are long by nature and we’ve all heard people waxing lyrical about a book they couldn’t put down, and they read it from cover to cover in one go. But that brings me back to my first point: imagine a group of friends just talking, during a lunch hour. And, as these casual talks go, you tend to talk about the various media you’ve consumed recently, right? Now, it would be strange if one of your friends declared he hadn’t watched, played or listened to anything recently, wouldn’t it? You’d think that something was wrong. But if one of your friends said they hadn’t read a book recently, you’d probably consider that to be utterly normal.
How has this happened? How has it become normal for reading to be such a sparse, even nonexistent activity? How have we come to this point where adults will quite happily tell you, without any hint of humor or shame, that the last book they read was “The Hungry Caterpillar” (which, even more depressingly, is not the actual title of the book)?
Smarter people than me have tried to answer this conundrum, but I will throw in my two cents regardless. Which brings me on to my first point: reading books have always had this air of exclusivity to them. Reading is by nature a very individual, insulated experience. TVs movies and music can be enjoyed on mass, and in fact can amplify the enjoyment, but books are at their best when the the book and the reader are alone in a bubble.
Plus, TV, movies, video games and music are largely expensive affairs, worked on by small armies of people who need to be paid, who may in turn feed families. They can't afford to be exclusive about what they do. They must throw their arms as wide open as they dare in order to put food on the table. Books, in that regard, have the luxury of not having that weight on them: they can afford to be a little more niche because only one or so people rely on it - if they rely on it at all, mind. Add to that the relative ease of putting a quality book together compared to what's needed to put a movie or TV show together, and you have the reasons why there's just so many books and authors out, way too many to keep up with, while its relatively easy to stay up to date with the biggest hits of the silver screen. And it's because of this that one can still walk into a commercial bookstore today and still pick up a book that, in the grand scheme of things, is obscure. At least, your friends and family have never heard of that book or that author anyway. It's this fact that still gives the act of reading a kind of aloofness, setting the reader apart from the masses...and yes, making one look a bit of a snob. No, there's no avoiding the fact that reading can come across to the average non-reader as a high brow past time. Look at it this way: we all know people who would've seen my decrying the fact that adults cite Eric Carle's magnum opus as latest and greatest read as sounding snobbish and elitist, and yet if I was concerned that a friend of mine who was in his 30s was genuinely arguing teletubbies as the greatest TV show of all time, the world would be on my side.
Now I'm not here to talk about why reading has this air about it - perhaps that's for another time - but I am here to talk about the result that got us here. Because it wasn't always like this: you don't need to rewind that far back in time to when it was deemed unusual to not have a book going. You don't need me to tell you what has changed since then, but remember that the TV coexisted very happily with books for a long time. No, what's changed is how we consume or media, rather than the increased options. We don't need to sit through bits of TV we don't want to watch any more, we can just jump straight in! We don't need to sit through the filler tracks on an album any more or even fast forward, we can skip it! And we don't even need to wait until we get home to do any of this any more, it's all within reach by a device in our pockets!
Now, I don't want to sound like a Luddite here - quite the opposite, I think the digital age has done uncountable good for mankind, and heck you're here drinking in my ramblings thanks to those changes - but we have definitely lost one thing in the transition. We don't put with filler any more. If our entertainment doesn't hit our sweet spot, we don't have to put up with it anymore: we just move on to something else. But in pre-digital age, you had to put up with the boring stuff - you couldn't jump around media like a bee collecting pollen, you had to put up with it.
So on the whole, while this change in how we entertain ourselves has been for the better, we've lost a valuable skill: patience. That willingness to put up with something just that bit longer in case it starts to get good. Watching or listening to something you had no intention of watching or listening, but you have no other choice, and finding you actually really like it and thus expanding your horizons in ways you weren't expecting, rather than today where we can carefully craft our playlists and habits until we are surrounded only by the genres we presume to love.
It's this change, this newfound taste for instant gratification, that is hurting people's desire to read, I think. Reading requires effort at the best of times, and heaps of patience. Usually that patience reaps rewards, in the form of a slow-burning but deeply satisfying read. But who has the patience or will for that?
Again, I know I'm coming across as an old-fashioned grump when I say all this, but I don't say this out of blind favoritism or assuming books are automatically better. But books can be immense fun to read and worthwhile company, even if they don't reveal their wealth of joy as immediately or obviously as their other entertainment cousins.
Next week, we'll continue to dig deeper into this conundrum, seeing what can be done to change this attitude...if anything.