The “news” that a sizable minority of the population doesn’t read books appears scary, until you turn it around. A thousand years ago, well over ninety percent of the population worked a long day and went home to stare in the fire all night. Now three out of four people read, and the rest are either struggling to stay awake (poor Richard Bustos, who will be forever remembered as the guy who gets “sleepy” when he reads) or, presumably, soaking up Last Comic Standing, catching up on the last season of the Sopranos, noodling on the Web, or reading newspapers or magazines.
Those last two points are important, because this article exhumes and trots about the 2004 NEA report, “Reading at Risk,” which at best proved what we already know, that most people do not read literary fiction. It didn’t prove much of anything else, because as the Village Voice among others pointed out, by the standards of “Reading at Risk,” you aren’t reading right now. By the NEA’s standards, nothing I read in two years of a well-regarded writing program counts as reading, either.
The article also has a big apples-to-oranges flaw: this report measured how many books people claimed they had read, but the article compares its results to early studies of how many books people had started. I don’t know what my start-to-finish ratio is, but I have at least a dozen books out of the library, two more than just arrived by Amazon, and I doubt I’ll finish half of them. That’s the joy of reading: if I don’t like a book, I can put it down and know that there are many, many more to take its place.
If this article wanted to really scare the pants off the public, it should have measured how many books people finish with how many gift books people have even opened. Our loved ones often think they know what we like to read. I’d love to write about gift books, because I think the books we give others are stories we tell, in Didion’s words, “in order to live.”
One huge exception to my gift-book theory is Chris Rose’s collection of essays about life after Katrina, “1 Dead in Attic.” My friend Vicki sent me the small-press paperback Rose was peddling, and I was immediately engrossed in Roses’s stories of life in and after Katrina and captivated by Rose’s funny, frank style. At Vicki’s recent suggestion I bought the new, pleasingly thick Simon & Schuster edition, and I can barely wait. I’m finishing three fat books about Katrina, starting with Breach of Faith, plus I have the usual assortment of neat stuff I found at the library, but on August 29 I plan to set aside all of it and in honor of all that Katrina represents, read the new edition of “1 Dead in Attic.”