I got it, I got it. People don't read because it makes them scared. And it makes us see how collectively stupid we can really act.
If we read things we see that we're losing thousands of acres of Louisiana wetlands so that we can ground up cypress trees for garden mulch. Clearly we need more and more of the stuff. Oil companies already dredged new waterways into the backcountry and now we keep doing this. If we read about it, we know it's happening, that it's very bad, that it leads to continued deterioration and greater negative effects from storms BUT...
That's only if we read about it and know that it's going on. Because everyone who reads about it will agree that it's a BAD THING. People who don't read about it probably have very pretty gardens and don't pay much nevermind to hurricanes in the Gulf Coast.
I used to work with two guys who made the comment, "Who wouldn't be in favor of globalization?" If I don't read anything about it, and I don't see that China has polluted 70% of their surface water and 90% of their underground water, that they manipulate their currency to make it difficult for foreign lands to export goods there, that they run over dissenters with tanks in Tiannemen Square (although I could catch that one on TV), then third world countries taking over all manufacturing might seem like a fine idea. After all, I don't want to build toasters and I really appreciate that every fifteen years or so, when I want to buy one, I can do it at Wal-Mart for ten bucks instead of fifteen. Geez, I save pennies a year on all the stuff that I almost never buy. Cool.
If I don't read anything I don't have to worry about the apparently inevitable one meter rise in sea level. See, we sold our house on the water in Florida without reading anything about how it might not be there in fifty or a hundred or a hundred and fifty years. Of course, I'll likely be dead by then and won't have the choice to read anything or not.
So maybe there's a good reason not to read anything. It's damn scary. On the other hand, there's always Calvin & Hobbes or The Far Side or Peanuts or other comic strips. I can read actual words, snort chocolate milk out my nose, and look at pictures at the same time.
People bemoan the decreasing readership in this country. Perhaps rightfully so. But no matter what anyone says or predicts, I can't help but have hope for improvement. I may just be naive, and most people wouldn't classify me as an outright optimist, so I may have a point.
First of all, I completely agree that the publishing industry is screwed up. For substantive improvement in the numbers of readers, they have to straighten up and create a better literary environment than the one we have now. I've written on and on in this blog about how they need to publish better books at lower prices. Scaling back mass market paperbacks in favor of more expensive trade paperbacks will only drive sales down further because people only have so much money to spend. Lower prices for books means book lovers can afford to buy more books.
They also need to find a way to bring along newer writers, not just ones that ghost for James Patterson, Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum. This takes some marketing effort, which takes money. How about less astronomical advances for the Big Names (let them make it up on royalties) and spread a little on the up and comers? This would be a massive improvement over the method of publish these six guys and see which, if any, happen to sell. Then we'll drop the rest and keep that guy...
If you're publishing a book by an author with talent, you shouldn't want to put yourself in that situation. Find ways to expose him/her to a readership. Publishing a book based on the idea that the big chains will order thousands is a process that consumes the present and excludes the future. It's not healthy for the industry or the reading community.
But my main point is a sort-of rebuttal to the folks who say there's no evidence of the Harry Potter phenomenon carrying over to other books. Hogwarts, I say. Er, hogwash. I do believe that if there were other books of that caliber available, there would be an immediate spillover. That only makes sense to me. Eragon and its ilk are too derivative, I believe, and as such lack the magic (forgive the pun) and sparkle of the Potter books. BUT millions of people, of all ages, have been turned on to these books in a very significant way. How can that help but have a positive effect in the future?
Couple that with the fact that this is even a topic of conversation. Take the No Child Left Behind Act (which I think is enormously flawed in concept, but that's another story), the increasing leeriness as to the advisability of unfettered video game usage, add it to the growing concern about the size of readership in this country, and you have pieces of an awareness that form an overall picture that calls for action. More emphasis on education should mean more children comfortable with reading. More parental control on the use of video games and a greater realization that reading is a good thing will help, as well.
If there is any truth in this, though, it will take a long time, years and years, for our society to reap the gains. So while the situation may not be good now, I don't think it means that reading is dead, merely sick or depressed. I still can't get over how many people I see on Friday and Saturday nights at Barnes & Noble. Those are the two nights that I'm worried about finding parking spaces. I find this to be remarkably cool.
Just don't ask what the hell I'm doing there on Friday and Saturday nights. You might spoil my rep.
I find this too funny. In keeping with the last post, I had to come back and report on the status of my DHL delivery. Their web site still predicts a delivery date of yesterday and the package has apparently returned to Ohio. So it went Brooklyn to NYC to Ohio to Pennsylvania and then back to the same location in Ohio.
It's not getting any closer. Maybe twelve bucks in shipping is a bargain. Maybe a few bucks of that ought to go to purchasing a few carbon offsets.
So I ordered some bees' wax based waterproofing for my hiking boots the other day. I was going to get it from the manufacturer's site but they wanted seven bucks for shipping. I dug a bit deeper on the web and on Ace Hardware's site, of all places, I found the stuff. The shipping was even more at over twelve dollars, but the goods themselves were half the price as the manufacturer's. What kind of discount do retailers get, anyway? Wow.
Sadly they ended up shipping the stuff with DHL. The last delivery I had from those guys was supposed to be overnight. The box was in town overnight, but the driver didn't know where to find the house and didn't bother to ask. The box went down to the southeastern corner of the state. I had to call them after seeing on the web that it wasn't being delivered. They completely botched my directions; they were written on the side of the box two days later when it was finally delivered.
The box from Ace shipped yesterday. Tonight I got an e-mail from DHL saying they were going to deliver my package, um, today. The shipment originated in Brooklyn, New York. Yesterday I saw that from there it went straight to Ohio. After tonight's message, you know, the night of the day in which DHL said the package would be delivered, their site shows the package now to be in Pennsylvania.
Um, isn't it going further away? No wonder it costs twelve bucks.
I make no bones about my feelings on video games: evil stuff. Even though their sanctioning body has backed off (for now) for labeling them addictive, the fact remains that psychologists say there is evidence that one in three kids who play video games undergo the same changes in brain chemistry as a narcotics addiction. Imagine if you're a parent who isn't aware of this and you bring a shiny new console into your house. You could very well be hooking your kids on a device that could dominate significant areas of their lives. Surely that could not be their intent.
I asked our college student babysitter if she'd ever dated a video game playing guy. She said once. And it would stay that way. She confirmed the sense I have that while it may be tragic to bring these things into the lives of your children, it's pathetic when it still has a hold on a college age (and beyond) man.
When I was a kid, the first Atari games were coming out, you know, Pong and the one where you shoot the light pistol at the TV screen. My dad would let us play a handful of times when we were at one of his friends' houses but was adamant that a machine like that would never cross the threshold of our family room. Good man.
So what's a kid to do? I found my high in comic books. I remember going into Salk Drugs one day on 54th and Lyndale in Minneapolis. In the back toward the pharmacy counter was a wire rack crammed full of the comics of the day. For some reason they seemed to be mostly Marvel and I've been a Marvel-Boy ever since. I picked out an issue of the Avengers, number 102 I think, with the Vision and the Grim Reaper squaring off on the cover.
Ohmigod, the art, the colors, the characters! The Avengers name alone was dark and dangerous, especially since I had only a vague idea of what it meant. I had no idea what was going on but aside from the Vision there was the Scarlet Witch, whose powers it took years for me to understand, her brother Quicksilver, and the rest of the team. Giant robot creations called Sentinels flew down and took the two away, flying then into the air to some far off lair.
I had no idea what had happened. I had no idea who or what the Vision was (an android created by Ultron to destroy the Avengers but who ultimately joined the team instead). He had a relationship to the villainous Grim Reaper and a long dead hero called Wonder Man that again took me years to figure out. Who had created the Sentinels? Why were they collecting all of the mutant super heroes and where were they taking them? What was a mutant?
My head was spinning. Best twenty cents I ever spent. Comics of the time, or more importantly, the sense of wonder and excitement that they gave me, have stayed with me and influenced me my entire life. Like girls watching super models, the heroes became my role models. And the language play that I learned, the terms and concepts that I never would have been exposed to otherwise, have all stayed with me to this day.
Perhaps the saddest part of my childhood came when my parents thought I was reading too many (reading too much!) and put a moratorium on my not so secret life. For a time I was miserable until I convinced them that by abandoning all my favorite titles in the middle of ongoing story arcs I had wasted a bunch of money. They agreed to reinstate me on a limited basis, followed by another ban (I remember that moment: in an effort to interest my brother, I made a comment based on a Marvel Team-Up with Spider-Man and the Human Torch, about how they were fighting Morbius, a vampire; I made it sound like the title was not part of an ongoing arc (and it wasn't) and the hammer fell again). But then slowly I crept back into the collecting fold and they wisely decided not to challenge it.
Sounds a bit like an addiction to me. Unlike video games, though, I think reading anything is more productive and beneficial than playing those games. You learn vocabulary and language usage; you're exposed to human behaviors, some noble and others deserving of super hero intervention; you can appreciate the art, the figures, the personalities: in short, your imagination can be stimulated to heights otherwise unachievable to non-literate adolescents. I never spent time reading comic books and then looked back and said, damn, I just threw away hours of my life. And I've done that with video games and watching late night movies on HBO.
My kids will read. If it's comic books that interest them, they can have them without restriction. We have a set of Harry Potter books on order, and I've got the first nine Three Investigators books by Robert Arthur just waiting for my boy to start reading. I saw an Encyclopedia Brown book in the store two days ago and I remember how my father could ALWAYS figure out the mysteries and how every third or fourth one that I could solve made me feel absolutely exhilarated. I think comics can do for them what they did for me, bring me into a world of books and learning and knowledge.
And wonder. Open eyed excitement. How else would they get those incredible feelings? It's not going to happen by sitting in front of a television or a computer monitor. They need to engage their imaginations and if there's a better way to do it, I don't know what it is.