Thursday, November 09, 2006

The 15 Minute Solution

by Libby Hellmann

First -- some personal news. The first book in my series, the Anthony-nominated An Eye for Murder is being re-released as a trade paperback by the wonderful folks at Poisoned Pen Press. If you’ve never read the Ellie Foreman novels, this is a good place to start. Or, if you just want to reconnect with an old friend, you can order it from your favorite bookstore or directly from Poisoned Pen Press.

Second, I have a new story up on Amazon Shorts. "The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared " won several contests when it first came out. Set in 1938 in Chicago’s Lawndale, it introduces 16 year old Jake Foreman (Ellie’s father), who has a crush on actress Miriam Hirsch. Unfortunately, Miriam only has eyes for Ben Skulnick, aka Skull, who may or may not be a gangster. Is all fair in love and war? See for Yourself-- It's only 49 cents.

Now… onto something weightier.

Most of you reading this are part of an extended community of readers and writers. Given that we tend to hang around with each other, it’s sometimes hard to realize that most people in the country don’t read. Or do so as little as possible. I won’t reiterate the sobering statistics – you already know that the time Americans spend reading has declined. You’ve heard how book sales have plummeted, particularly mass markets. You’ve read how newspapers are phasing out their book review sections.

Maybe you’ve signed in one of the chains, as I have, and experienced a person passing your table. You ask if they read mysteries, and they reply, rather defiantly, it seems, “Oh, I don’t read. I don’t have time.” You bite back the obvious reply, “Then what are you doing in a bookstore?” and go on. Inside, though, you’re fuming.

At least I am.

It’s not just that we’ve evolved from being a culture of ideas to a culture of the mouse. It’s not just that we've dumbed ourselves down to become ignorant. It's that we’ve become arrogant in our ignorance. We’re proud of the fact we have more important things to do than read.

Okay – enough whining. I’m probably preaching to the choir anyway. But I do have an idea, and I’d like your reactions. It’s not a total solution, but it may be the beginning of one. Unless I’m hopelessly naïve. You tell me.

How many of you remember the ”Get Caught Reading” campaign about 10 or 15 years ago? I think it was library-based, and it consisted of photos of celebrities reading a book. (Today’s “Got Milk” capitalized on the idea).

So… what if there was a new campaign? With the message: Just turn off your computer, Ipod, or cell phone (and, yes, even the blogs) for 15 minutes a day and read. Just15 minutes.

Think about it. In 15 minutes, a person might read 10 pages. Over a month, that’s 300 pages, which is an entire book. Over a year’s time, that’s 12 books. And that doesn’t take into account that some people might actually enjoy the experience and read more. Everyone can find 15 minutes a day, can’t they?

You’d get famous people to appear, everyone from to LeBron James to Brangelina to Barack Obama. You’d blitz the media, including cable, print, and banner ads all over the Internet. Maybe you could tie in book giveaways at the same time, although I really don’t see this as a commercial venture.

The key would be to make a big splash. To make sure the message is heard by young people as well as adults, kids as well as parents. In order to do that, of course, you’d need to get the entire publishing industry involved: publishers, distributors, bookstores, libraries. Walmart and Costco. Even Oprah.

And that’s the problem.

I’ve been told it would never work. That the publishing industry is too fragmented. That publishers prefer to spend their marketing dollars promoting individual authors and titles. That you’d never get all the different entities to cooperate.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t want to believe that. Why wouldn’t a company want to promote behavior that encourages consumers to buy their products? I can’t imagine the chains wouldn’t want to take part in it, either. Or libraries. Independent bookstores. Or authors. It’s one of those win-win situations. All it would take is a little cooperation. And money. And, if all the interested parties pooled their resources, how much could it cost any one player?

So, what do you think? Could it happen? Is it even possible to restore the culture of reading?


Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Great idea, Libby, but one that would need the support of the publishers. Maybe one way to hook the younger generation would be to tie in reading with another of their pasttimes. Like, read while being tattooed; or, read while sneaking a smoke.

Maryann Mercer said...

Since we all know that the most important thing to publishers is the bottom line, why not give them the idea in the light of driving sales, especially in the dreary winter months after the holidays? Maybe some celebs would even donate a photo of themselves and a book. Since we tend to be influenced by the visual media these days, why not use it?
This is not only a good idea, it's an idea even teachers could use in the classroom. Is it all possible? Of course. It just takes a big first step. I am ever an optimistic pragmatist.

Sara Paretsky said...

Maybe we could approach state libraries; they have matching federal money for literacy programs and they might have budgets for this kind of thing. Good idea, Libby. We just need time and energy....

ab said...

Libby, what a great idea! Actually, I read a Swedish blog only yesterday asking what the pride there is in bragging that you never reading a book.

I think even photos of celebs with a book would make an impact. Not only film stars, but sports stars too. Oprah has already done tons for making people read, so obviously it can be done. And fifteen minutes a day is a great slogan. Bring a paperback on the subway, train or bus to work! Bring an audio book to your gym! ("Give your brain some training too, or it might shrink"). I hope publishers understand that going together to make people read more, will help them individually as well.

Reading in bed before going to sleep is a great habit. Everyone should do it.

ab said...

Sorry about the strange grammar in the above post - I changed it without checking the result before hitting the button.

johnny dangerous said...

I teach journalism, lit, and writing in a 2-year college. Very few of my students read. I've told them for years that 'if you read 15 minutes a day you'll read 15 books a year (or so). 15 for 15.' Now there's a slogan. Some students have picked up on this, but most are content to get their stories from videogames, the new form of narrative.

Steve said...

One of the great things about commuting by bus is the extra reading time it provides.

Depending on my arrival time at the park & ride I ride with several different groups during the week. On each bus 25-50% are caught reading.

I subjective sense is that this % is on an upward trend. 4-5 years ago there were only 1-2 of us reading.

Unfortunately, on the ride home there are more people sleeping than reading.