Monday, November 26, 2007

The Tenacity and Captivating Power of Books

There are hundreds of reasons not to pick up a book for recreational reading. Despite distractions like YouTube, America's Next Top Model and even lowly RedLion Reports, we keep on buying and reading books. In last Sunday's New York Times Week in Review, Motoko Rich wrote about why we keep on reading books. The National Endowment for the Arts recently noted that Americans are reading less. The decline is greatest among teenagers and young adults. At the same time, reading scores among those who do read are dropping, and employers complain that workers lack basic reading comprehension skills. In a competitive market for leisure activity, as seductive alternatives to reading expand, reading loses ground. The good news, amazing really, is that readers persist in reading. Book sales are growing slightly. Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade association, reports that the book trade sold 3.1 billion books last year, up 0.5 percent from last year. Compare Apple's investment in marketing the IPod and its supporting services, accessories and progeny with the marketing budgets of book publishers. Goliath has not succeeded in snuffing David.

In the New York Times story, Rich wonders why some people turn to reading and stay with it. A leading theory is that the right book at the right time is catalytic -- sets off a chain reaction of lifelong reading. Sherman Alexie won the National Book Award for young people's literature a few weeks ago for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. In his acceptance remarks, he thanked Ezra Jack Keats for the picture book, The Snowy Day. The main character, Alexie noted, "resembled me physically and resembled me spiritually, in all his gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation." Azar Nafisi, writer of Reading Lolita in Tehran thought that people read for the "excitement of trying to discover that unknown world." Some books are like potato chips, the first one is delicious and you can't stop after just one. For some, the chip of choice is Harry Potter or the Hobbit. For me, it was Nancy Drew, the Brontes and Jane Austen.

What about you? Why do you read? What book or books got you started?


Alison M. Kilmartin said...

First the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, read to me by my teachers in the second and third grades. Then Nancy Drew and her escapades with George and Bess. Finally, and don't laugh, the Sunfire Series, romantic tales set in the context of historic moments (the Johnstown Flood, the Alamo, the Mayflower, etc.). Frank Peretti captured my imagination in junior high and changed my worldview forever with his classics "This Present Darkness" and "Piercing the Darkness." The latest great was "Gates of Fire" by Steven Pressfield. Those 300 Spartans, what can I say, eat your heart out.

Kelly J. Bozanic said...

I read because there is nothing like curling up with a good book, a warm cup of coffee and a cozy blanket. I read because it is grounding, because it connects me with those who have gone before; to read the same words as so many "greats" throughout history is inspiring. I read because in our increasingly high-tech world, books stay the same. Their timelessness is an anchor, a comfort and a joyful escape.

Jim Chen said...

Nice post, Marie. I answered a similar challenge by Ann Bartow nearly a year and a half ago.

Here are the leading highlights:

1. Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men. I'm still trying to progress from the Great Twitch to the Awful Responsibility of Time, now that I've moved farther from the stink of the didie and closer to the stench of the shroud.

2. Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome. There are other books that reliably develop the theme of a promising young man frustrated at not "making it" and then being utterly destroyed by his own choices. Jude the Obscure and The Natural belong in the same genre. But Ethan Frome is the rare book of this sort written by a woman, and its protagonist displays a unique talent for destroying the woman he loves. I've lost track of how often I've read it.

3. Honorable mentions: Bernhard Schlink, The Reader and Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain.

Marie T. Reilly said...

Jim, what was the first book you remember reading on your own? Surely it wasn't Ethan Fromme.
My first "big girl" book was Charlotte's Web. I've read it nearly a hundred times since the first time under my covers with a flashlight way past the time my parents told me to go to bed. I've read it for myself, for my children and for other children who just happened to need one terrific story.

Jim Chen said...

The first book I remember reading on my own was Curious George. A box somewhere in Minnesota has my copy of the collected Curious George stories.

Marie T. Reilly said...

Curious George is standing on the rail of the ship carrying him from where he started to where he is going. He's curious about the churning ocean below him. The words under the picture: "First this." Turn the page. "Then this." Curious has fallen from the rail and is tumbling into the water.

This passage is among the greatest two pages in all of literature. I know it and love it so well because it was my son Ted's favorite part of the book. Mine too.

Jeffrey H. Kahn said...

I was (and still am) a fantasy/sci fi geek. The first series that I remember reading over and over again is the Chronicles of Narnia set. I also remember Edward Edgar's Half Magic series, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga and David Eddings' The Belgariad. At the bookstore, I saw one of my other favorites from childhood, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. One of the best things about having a child is buying all these wonderful books again for him to read.