While I came up with some theories - the nature of how we consume media is the big culprit rather than the swelling mass of it - the simple fact is that there as many possibilities to that question as there are non-readers on the planet. That is to say: loads.
So what can be done? What, if anything, needs to change to make it a more widely-consumed medium, where people will gossip over developments in book series just as much as their favourite TV show or movie?
Well, let’s take a step back first. To say people should read more is to imply that they don’t read enough right now. Which it’s blatantly not true: people probably read now more than they ever have done, but again, it’s all different. Rather than long prose, we’re talking news articles, Wikipedia pages and clickbait. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but all of these kind of works are ‘reactive’ reading: one doesn’t actively seek them out. You stumble across them online via Facebook and reddit and the like.
With other forms of media, we get a balance of this ‘reactive’ exposure with ‘proactive’ exposure. With TV and to a lesser extent movies it is now very easy to be casually surfing the internet until a link you see piques your interest and before you know it you’re hooked on a TV show. Yet at the same time it’s easier than ever to be picky about what we watch and listen to: we have immediate access to all TV shows, movies and music we could wish. We can proactively seek out what we want, rather than wait for it to come to us, thanks to the advent of things like Netflix, Amazon Fire TV and simply being able to record and watch your shows later.
But where is this balance with books? A number of people may argue that they get sufficient reading out of articles and news online, but the problem there is that, while a lot of visual and audio media bears relation to one another – YouTube isn’t a million miles away from actual TV, and radio is still close to your own music collection – articles online are wildly different from books. The structure, the purpose, and approach to reading and enjoying, are so different as to be regarded as something else entirely.
Where I’m going with this is that it would be nice to see more of these ‘reactive’ reading pieces bear closer resemblance to what you can find in a book. More short stories, more flash fiction, more sharing and exposure to these types of things. This can be a much more effective smooth step into full novels, and even if people don’t find the time or place to go that far then at least they’ve had some experience of fiction via reading or listening to it. It’s kind of what I try to do here, on the channel and on my website.
Now, to all of this, you may be asking that first question again: why? Why is it so important to get more people reading? Again, I don’t want to sound patronising when I say all of this, and I’m not about to roll out the health and intellectual benefits to reading – we already know this the same way we all know that we should be eating five fruit and veg a day – it doesn’t say anything new and it doesn’t change anybody’s mind.
My thoughts on the matter are quite simple: books themselves don’t need to change to differentiate themselves. The way we consume media now has meant that books have now become the brand apart, the entertainment form that’s just that little bit different. And that could be great way to get people to look at it.
A great way books are different is the scale of immersion: a music album lasts about an hour. A movie can last about two hours. Video games can be much longer, but you can only really immerse yourself in them for short stints at a time, and the experience can get repetitive. Books are in a different league entirely: they can last hours upon hours, and always remain gripping. You can truly lose yourself in the world of a book and stay there for an extended period of time without it getting dull.
Related to this is the fact that books demand your undivided attention. You can’t be reading while doing other things, not even listening to music. Other people find pleasure in listening to music while cooking, or skipping between video game and smartphone. Now, some people may find that frustrating – the last decade has taught us that we should always be multitasking, doing more than one thing at a time – so books demanding your complete attention my sound like a turn off. To that end, I say – see books as downtime. The time when we all want to be off the grid for a while, away from social media and our constant connections.
And books give that respect back to you. What do I mean? Well, two things: because there’s this sense of ‘just me and the book’, it feels like you’re giving yourself more me-time as well, rather than running to catch up with everyone else. And as I mentioned last week, whereas it’s impossible to indulge in a TV show that few else know inside out and has been dissected and discussed to death, with books its much easier to pick up something more unknown, to keep the story to yourself. Look at Game of Thrones, for example. Prior to the TV series, you had just the books. Popular books, sure, but I guarantee that 95% of the TV audience had no idea what Game of Thrones was until the TV show started. Now, it is veritable empire of entertainment, complete with internet memes, discussion boards, famous quotes, video games…the list goes on. There’s a lot of great stuff that comes out of that, and more people have snapped up the novels as a result, but something gets lost in the process as well. You are simply not allowed to enjoy Game of Thrones as an individual anymore. You cannot avoid being wired into the web of media surrounding it. One loses that sense that they can take in a story, enjoy it, reflect upon it however they wish and leave it there. Everyone needs to make their voice heard on what they think you should be thinking.
But with books, it is still easy to escape that. To find that solitude, to feel as though you’re the only person in the world to whom these books matter. I haven’t met anybody else who has read Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud, not even online. It really does feel like the book was just for me. Of course, that’s not true – that book is sitting on the shelves of thousands of people around the world – but it is very easy to retain that bubble of illusion, and it is a bubble well worth maintaining, for making these stories feel singular, personal and special. I cannot tell you what movies, TV and music I enjoyed in 2008, but I can easily tell you what I read back then.
This is my idea of why books not only remain relevant, but can easily position themselves as something different to the manic consumption and sharing of media of today. Books as immersion, as escape, as being more personal and separate. Something I think non-readers can understand and appreciate. Books are just as exciting, fun, funny and thought-provoking than anything else they enjoy, with all the added benefits of that feeling that it’s just for you. And who doesn’t like that?