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Author Topic: State of the Reading Union
ChrisOwens
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Depressing...

http://www.cnn.com/2007/LIVING/wayoflife/08/21/reading.ap/index.html


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The G-Bus Man
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Now hold on here. As someone with a background and heavy interest in statistics, a very well-read person and as someone who in his own not-so-humble opinion believe he has a lot of analytical reasoning skills and intelligence to deconstruct any subject of his choosing within reason, I would be highly suspect of the research, polling, and indeed the very alarmism of the article itself.

First of all, the poll is biased right from the start with its selective definition of "reading," narrowing it only to books and excluding other forms of printed matter, and especially excluding electronic print. I know a lot of you may claim that, somehow, electronic print doesn't count, but simply put the Internet and telecommunications explosion of the 1990s to the present has resulted in a dramatic increase in reading as most Internet communications is accomplished through (electronic) print.

Secondly, as usual the population sample of the poll is "invisible" - what methods did they use to conduct this poll? Did they poll urban centers, rural populations, or both? Where geographically was this poll primarily taken? Based on what I've seen of private and government polls, statistical sampling is just outright dismally sloppy no matter where you go (now that's a real alarming piece of news for you there!)

And...and I know this is going to very much be contrary to the opinions on this board...but I fail to see the trouble (well, it should be alarming to someone who wishes to be a published author such as myself and the vast majority of people who read this post, granted). But like it or not, tastes change, and the largest factor in changing societal taste is technology. And in a free market economy, expect these changes to be quick and drastic, and yes, often towards the "lowest common denominator." It may not be pretty, but it's there, and the only effective way to change the course of societal taste is to effectively have leadership command it (such as the apty-named command economy model of the Soviet Union) which needless to say is not desirable in a free speech society such as the United States or the United Kingdom (nor is it desirable for asipring writers like us).


Some people believe that the media-at-large have a right-wing agenda. Some people believe that the media-at-large have a left-wing agenda. Call me crazy, but I believe the media-at-large tend to have a Luddite agenda. Every time a new piece of technology appears, or every time research into a piece of technology particularly aimed at mass media/information dissemination appears, these sentiments always pop up. Personally, I wouldn't worry - it's been my experience that the people who need to read for society's sake - the future engineers, the future teachers, the future political readers - remain very capable readers.


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Robert Nowall
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Well, first off, the mainstream media does operate from a left-wing point of view---it's not so much an agenda as a way of life. Most of 'em don't even realize they're doing it. (Some do, but that's more overtly political than is suitable for discussion on this board.)

I glanced at the story on my normal way through the web this morning, even before I got here. That only one out of four people do any serious reading hardly surprises me---it's the story of my life. Most of the people around me do not read at my, er, level of intensity---it's sporadic if at all.


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ChrisOwens
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Wow--politics again. This "left" and "right" thing is one-dimensional thinking. The average person can hardly be plotted along a line. Nor can the media, who by the way, are owned by cooperations and investment firms--a huge conflict of interest. These are same the cooperations who funnel money into the coffers of both political religions.

Er, sorry for the rant...

Back to the topic of reading: Why has the reading of novels/fiction declined? What can be done to reverse the trend?

My cousin looked at my little blog and said "What is all this? I don't really do a lot of reading, because it is very hard for me to concentrate...In books it all has to be described to you, while in movies, if you pay attention, you can see these details."

He couldn't be convinced otherwise, no matter how I tried to describe how the words disapear, and the story comes to life in the mind.


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luapc
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I've read that most readers read more when they are younger (High School and younger). After that, a lot of readers drift away from it. Maybe the reason for that is that text books and reading is a part of every-day life until about then, and becomes gradually less important. Also, new things are happening in most young adults after High School, as it's usually their first foray away from their parents. (Maybe not for all of them, but most.)

I think the only way to get people to want to read later in life, is to get them reading more when younger, so they'll want to read at least some as they grow older. I give authors like JK Rowling a big hand of applause for reviving the desire of young kids to read more. A lot of those kids will now continue to read more as adults.

I shudder to think what the reading public would be like today without Harry Potter. I'm sure it wouldn't be nearly as strong, as Harry Potter books are about the only news about written fiction you see anymore. Now that it's over, I hope someone else picks up the torch if JK Rowling doesn't hit it big with her next set of novels.

As far as this survey, I don't give it much credibility. For one thing, it doesn't give any indication if more young kids (the future adult readers) are reading. It also does not give anything to compare to. Five or ten years ago, was it any better? Maybe it is even better now than before, but it's impossible to tell from this as there's nothing to compare to.


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ChrisOwens
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I guess maybe that comes down to: time and energy.

When you are younger, you have more time and energy to read. When you get out on your own, you have to earn a living, and that time and energy is greatly sapped. At the end of the day, people are spent. Reading gets put far down on the list. It's far easier to turn the TV on and veg--the course of least resistance.


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Matt Lust
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What's missing here is an honest understanding of class.

Blue collar workers (say 20 percent of america) have always been on the short end of the reading spectrum and the ultra-wealthy (say 1 percent) have typically only read when they're forced too. (it's too much like real work).

Of course over the last 25 years or so America has demonstrated that in our contemporary society, creative capital not physical capital brings success. I could go on but I'd rather not, its all very depressing but also moderately hopeful too.

I say this because for those of us who fancy ourselves writers must first be concerned with our audience. SF readers have historically possessed higher than average "intellectual" tendencies while Fantasy readers have historically possessed higher than average "artistic" tendencies.

People came to books of the 1960's,70's and 80's for something that wasn't being provided by other forms of media most namely: visions of a different, possible or impossible reality. Not escapism but rather the wonderful potential of the mind.

However, we now have other ways to experience the potential of the mind. Thus contemporary writing must be all the better in order to capture this potential of the mind. For we are no longer the simple consumers we once were and are now unwilling to suffer anything but the very best.

[This message has been edited by Matt Lust (edited August 22, 2007).]


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luapc
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Matt, you make a good point, and Chris's cousin makes the same one. I guess the world of written fiction is competing with other media types today, where they weren't so much so in the past. In the 70's for example, there was only movie theaters competing. Then came along video tape for the masses, and cable TV. Now we have DVD's and HD, Pay-Per-View, Netflix, etc., as well as big screen TV's for the home which make it that much closer to a theater experience.

The positive spin to it, from what I can see, is that there's still a lot of big book stores like Borders doing just fine. Even with the competition, there seems to still be those who love to read printed books. It gives me hope that when i get published someday, there'll still be someone out there who wants to read it.


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Howjos
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You also have a lot more interactive story telling through Computers and gaming consoles. People feel like they have control over where the story goes, even though they are still guided by the hand of an all-knowing programer, along a pre-defined path.

I found that my reading levels (for personal satisfaction)declined about 9 years ago. I had recently finished high school and was off to University. I had a part time job and shortly after got married. A lot of new things to get used to and work into some form of stability into my life. About 3 years ago I made a choice to pick up books again on a more regular basis. I am now back to reading several books a month instead of one every two or three months.

Technology will continue to change and knew ways for telling stories will come and go. Written texts may lose there popularity, but I feel will not disappear until some quite radical forms of technology appear, but the art of story telling, and the desire for stories will remain. Long before stories were written down stories were shared through oral culture. Even after the advent of the press there was still some time before the majority of the population new how to read. I am sure during this period, as written communication was becoming more popular, there were similar discussion about the decline of the actor and the play house.

The key in my mind is to focus on the story. A good story is a good story, no matter which medium it is portrayed through. The technical side of how it is produced can be taught. The ability to tell a good story though is much harder to learn.

[This message has been edited by Howjos (edited August 22, 2007).]


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HuntGod
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For me at least, no PDA or Audiobook will ever replace the comfort of lazing about on my couch or losing track of time on the toilet, with a good old PRINTED book.

I know the PDA has the same portability, arguably a better portability, than a printed tome, but the experience is completely different.

That said some printed formats, particularly reference material or instructional text, I think benefit from digital versions. Though I still like thumbing through pages. I play alot of RPG's and I like the PDF versions of game books, because of the advanced search features that digital mediums allow.


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The G-Bus Man
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Well, if you ask certain "technologists" and in particular a funny little group called "Singulartarians" such as Ray Kurtzweil, even the book as we know it is on life support, destined to be replaced by ultra-thin laptops with sustainable power sources.
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luapc
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It isn't difficult to imagine a world without paper, especially for most of us here who are creative and have good imaginations. The technology does exist today to eliminate paper completely, and with a reasonable price tag. Even with that though, there are advantages to having some form of permanent record that does not require a device to retrieve, so I doubt paper would ever disappear completely.

I personally don't believe it will happen as long as it is such a constant part of our everyday lives. Just think about every scrap of paper you get through out a day, and consider what kinds of devices would have to replace all of that. Perhaps some sort of personal recorder, like a credit card sized thing or something would work, but it would have to be just as accepted as say ATM cards are today, and much more secure. Not to mention that our money is made of paper (well, a special kind, but still basically paper).

I think what it would take is for our schools to start replacing all forms of printed material with electronic media of various types. Then kids would learn that that is the normal way to read, and it would be natural and a learned response, rather than a change. It would then become abnormal to read anything on paper, rather than the other way around like it is for most of us today. We learned in school that it is normal to read things on paper, so anything else just doesn't seem right.

I imagine that something like that will eventually happen, but it'll take generations to take hold completely, because it'd take everybody changing and accepting it. The Internet has been around for only about 15 years, and some changes have happened because of that, but they are happening quite slowly. There are a lot of people today that will read some things on a screen, like web pages, but not want to read things like fiction on it. I myself can go either way, but still prefer paper.


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Antinomy
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There is a new trend at my local library that I find discouraging. Newly expanded space was recently allocated for racks and racks of videos; primarily movies and games. Iíve had lengthy waits at the checkout desk while dozens of videos are scanned for both younger and older patrons.


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annepin
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[aside]
==========
There is a new trend at my local library that I find discouraging. Newly expanded space was recently allocated for racks and racks of videos; primarily movies and games.
==========

Yeah, I've noticed this too, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. It strikes me as sad; at the same time, I do believe a public library should reflect what people want, and balance it with their mission of providing literary and research resources.
[/aside]an

I don't know if the physicality of a book is really the issue here. It seems to me people simply aren't willing to spend the time to read. And frankly I think people are tired of the same old, same old. I know I am.

On the other hand, sites like Amazon have made it much easier to make sales targeted to that specific group that does like to read, likes to read a lot, and may very well like to read _your_ book. So to become a successful author, I think you have to think about marketing and publicity. You have to reach out to that specific group and convince them to read your book. It's the Google model of advertising, trying to tailor to a specific audience. I've even heard of people self publishing, and then hiring marketers. A risky route, but at least they are trying something different. E-publishing (or whatever it's called) is also an option, and this whole print-on-demand thing can further lower the costs.

I also think authors will have to work hard to provide on-line content. I read somewhere a publisher theorizing in part why Rowling was so successful. The publisher said it could be because of all the on-line content she and her publisher created to support fans.

There's also a interesting story about a guy (gosh, I wish I could remember his name! It's a fascinating article) who got a contract through Tor, and then got special permission to put his book, his entire book, available on-line for free. At first Tor was afraid the act would cut down on sales. In fact, the book did better than their projected figures.

Bottom line: the book world, like the rest of the printed world, is in flux. No one has quite figured out the "formula for success" quite yet, and many people are afraid of letting go of the old way. Some people are trying new things.

So, as an aspiring authors, I think the key is innovation and thinking outside the printed page. How can we reach out to fans? Someone started a topic about blogs. In this day an age, I think it's almost mandatory for an author to have a blog, a myspace/ facebook page, etc, etc. I think this works well because fans like to be a part of something.

[rant]
Personally, I think movies are going out now, too. Have you noticed how much longer movies are these days? It seems the average is 2 hours; 10 years ago, the average seemed to be 1.5 hours. I think movie makers are doing this to justify the $10+ dollars we have to fork out to go to the theater. But longer doesn't mean better (books are suffering from this inflation too). In fact, I've pretty much reached my limit on movies. Too much of it feels like self indulgence, "packed with action", but little else. I've been disappointed with movies the last 5 years or so.

These days, I go to the theater probably just once a year. DVD sales are big because you get to own the movie and they usually come with extras. I usually get movies on Netflix; even then, I find myself watching more t.v. shows- Sopranos, The Wire, BSG, Lost, Rome. I don't think I'm alone on this. And as the cable networks get better and better, I think these shows are going to replace a lot of movie-going, if they haven't already.
[/rant]

[This message has been edited by annepin (edited August 23, 2007).]


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Marzo
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Leaping back to the original survey findings, I have to say I'm not terribly surprised. (Even accounting for the potential for flaws in the methodology, I think it's safe to say that there has been a general trend toward less leisure reading amongst the North American public.)

As others have pointed out, the competition with movies and video games is something I consider a big factor. One is an entirely passive, stunning form of entertainment (more vivid than most imaginations would claim to be), and the other is an equally visually engaging form of interactive entertainment. Books are a visually bland form of semi-interactive entertainment. You're fed a plot, but you're left to fill in many gaps of knowledge and the entire visual scene. It'd be like getting handed a script and a camcorder and told to enjoy yourself - it takes a special kind of personality to enjoy that act of guided, cooperative creation.

And looking at the way the public education system is geared toward the lowest common denominator, and with an emphasis on 'useful' classes like math and science on top of that, it's no surprise that it's not the preferred mode of entertainment for the majority of today's literate population.


There's always room for improvement.


If anyone's still depressed over this trend, take heart. Our situation as writers could be worse; look at history for literacy rates and rates of publication. I'd say now's a fine time to be a writer. We have all the productivity tools in the world - internet for research, word programs for quick typing, email for submissions without the cost of postage - to help us do what we love to do.


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