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Original Essays

A Book-Babe Dialogue

by Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel
  1. Between the Covers: The Book Babes
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

Hi Margo, a.k.a. Fellow Book Babe,

The death of reading has become such a common refrain in our culture that it's sometimes hard to peel your eyes off the obvious fact that most people are reading more than ever. The Internet and text messaging, now the universal form of communication for anyone under 30, demand literacy, or something close to it.

Ah, but book reading — therein lies the rub, to borrow a phrase. A 2007 Associated Press survey revealed that 25 percent of Americans say they haven't read one book in the past year. A 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) sounded the alarm that our countrymen, especially the young ones, are throwing books under the bus in favor of such mindless pleasures as video games and TV. Our collective biblio-blindness finds a metaphor in the new movie version of José Saramago's novel Blindness, about a society inflicted with an epidemic of being unable to see. Does a book need to be made into a film in order to enter the broader public's line of sight? Or does this rule only apply to foreign writers who, like Saramago, have won the Nobel Prize?

But I digress. My real question is this: Assuming you agree that book reading is bedrock, what beyond dire warnings and self-correcting strategies will reverse our flight away from our favorite pastime?

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Hey Ellen,

Don't knock movies as a way to get people to pick up a book. Edith Wharton made a comeback as a bestselling novelist, 72 years after she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, when Martin Scorsese made a film based on the novel. Hollywood has always mined books for story ideas, but it used to be that only bad books made good movies. Now great movies are being based not only on classics like Wharton's but also contemporary literary fiction, from Chuck Palahniuk's Choke to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. And inevitably these movies send viewers back to read the book. In other words, associating reading with a pleasurable activity like movie-watching can lead to more reading.

So here's my two-fold strategy to bring more readers into the fold:

1. Stress the pleasure of reading, and stop sounding like we're urging people to eat their vegetables. As Oprah has demonstrated, when we link people to books that resonate with their lives, they get hooked.

2. Wipe out illiteracy. It's shocking to learn that one out of every four Americans doesn't crack a book, but when you look at the literacy rates in this country, you begin to understand why. Many of them don't know how to read. In 1993, a $14 million National Adult Literacy Survey found that even though most adults in the survey had finished high school, 96 percent of them could not read, write, and figure well enough to go to college. Even worse, 25 percent "were plainly unable to read," period.

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You're so right, Margo:

Literacy is a big part of the equation. After its Reading at Risk report, the NEA did a 2007 follow-up, To Read or Not to Read, which is even more sobering. Instead of looking at literary reading among adults, this report looks at all sustained reading (magazines, newspapers, books) among both adults and teenagers. Not only are Americans spending less time reading, but — no surprise — their attainment levels have fallen as a result.

As the NEA points out, you don't have to read for reading's sake (although I'm sure you'd agree that an afternoon spent with a good book is a satisfaction in itself). Rather, consider academic and career achievement, involvement in the community, and getting a clue about the world: All are correlated with reading. In fact, according to studies compiled by the NEA, just having books on your shelf correlates to greater academic success. I guess we can safely assume that owning books means actually reading them. You can't get smarter by using them to decorate a shelf.

Susan Jacoby's latest book, The Age of American Unreason, further elaborates on this distressing picture. She notes that that many of the founding fathers were intellectuals — which is defined as those dedicated to the life of the mind. No longer do such men enter the political arena, and for good reason. America has been on an anti-intellectual kick for the last half-century or so, a development perpetrated by two trends: TV and the public's determination to amuse itself to death (a la Neil Postman's book, circa 1985), and fundamentalist religion, which promotes anti-rational thought. Interestingly enough, she notes that this religious upswing hasn't increased our biblical literacy: a majority of adults can't name the four Gospels or identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible. And we thought we were a Christian country!

It's clear that we as a nation need to get back between the covers, to reclaim the intellectual advantage. It's not just that we're getting dumber. As Richard Dooling noted in an October 11 op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times, the machines keep getting smarter. The financial world brought us to the brink of collapse by too much dependence on technology, an example of how "off-loading our minds" onto machines can become an alternative to using our own heads.

It's not HAL, but us, who are slowly winding down: Daisy, daisy...

So, Margo, what's your antidote?

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Hey Ellen,

As any mom, grandma, or childless aunt will tell you, little kids are crazy about books. They love when someone reads to them, and they can't wait to read themselves. Reading scores among the elementary-school set are high. The problem starts at puberty, when the junk-food culture intrudes. One study indicates that a full third of teens multi-task while they read — say, watch TV, listen to music, play video games.

How do we maintain kids' interest in reading when there are so many competing activities? Programs like the NEA's Big Read — community-wide reads that focus attention on a single book — and the librarians' initiative aimed at "reluctant readers" in the most critical age group — young adults — help. Good books that can hold young readers' attention, like the Harry Potter series, are even better. But moms, grandmas, and aunts (childless and otherwise) also need to keep up the pressure.

Yup, it's up to women to save reading. Surveys regularly show that girls and women read better and more often than men. According to the NEA, 55 percent of women are regular readers, as compared to 38 percent of men. Women were the fuel behind the book club boom of the '90s that brought readers together to make what is a very private pastime more social. They still represent the bulk of book-club members.

But women can't stop at creating more book clubs or putting more books in the hands of young adults. We need to lead the charge against the dumbing down of our country before it's too late. As you say, Ellen, there are disturbing signs everywhere. In my own backyard, the Tampa Bay community of Treasure Island recently unanimously voted, because of the economic crunch, to cut $107,000 in funding for its local library. Without any support, the library now will have to charge households $100 if they want a library card. This reflects a sad set of priorities that readers of both genders need to work to change.

Remember when John F. Kennedy got us all jogging? We need to urge the next president to get us all cracking open a book.

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Margo Hammond, longtime book editor for the St. Petersburg Times and past president of the Southern Book Critics Circle, lives in Florida.

Ellen Heltzel, a member of the National Book Critics Circle board, has written for the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune. She lives in Portland, Oregon. spacer

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