Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reading is Fundamental

by Libby Hellmann

Every year, one of my new year’s resolutions is to improve my writing. For me, writing is a challenge, and I usually feel unequal to the task. I’m not one of those people who love the process of writing, and I’m jealous of people who do. I’m more the “I-hate-writing-but-loved-that-I’ve-written type. Which begs the question of why I’m writing in the first place.

The answer is I’m not sure, but I have my suspicions. I love stories, and I love characters, and I love it when either the story or the characters surprise me. I wasn’t always a book junkie (although I started out that way as a kid)… I was a film-maker way before I was a writer, and my goal was to be the Lina Wertmuller of the United States.

But somewhere along the way I came back to words. There are so many authors writing such wonderful books -- stories that inspire, that educate, that shock, bring me to tears, cause me to question, or make me fall in love all over again. There is a delight in settling down with a book and knowing I’m going to be taken on an author’s journey – whether physical, metaphysical, or emotional -- and let into their heads for a while. In fact, that joy is one of the most pleasurable activities I can think of.

So it’s probably not a stretch to see how that fueled my desire to write… to create stories and characters that would bring the same delight to others as I’ve always felt.

Sadly, though, (and yes, I’ve blogged about this before), people aren’t reading the way they used to. We all know the statistics about the hours Gen X’ers and Y’ers spend online, visiting social networks, or melding with their Blackberries. It's time they aren’t spending reading. Now, it seems that Baby Boomers are getting into the act too.

Shelf Awareness, a wonderful resource about bookselling btw, cites an article from the New York Times last fall:

"Technology investors and entrepreneurs, long obsessed with connecting to teenagers and 20-somethings, are starting a host of new social networking sites aimed at baby boomers and graying computer users. The sites …look like Facebook--with wrinkles.”

According to the article’s author, Matt Richtel "there are 78 million boomers--roughly three times the number of teenagers--and most of them are Internet users ... Indeed, the number of Internet users who are older than 55 is roughly the same as those who are aged 18 to 34, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a market research firm."

Does that mean Boomers, traditionally the backbone of the buying public, will be reading fewer books as time goes on? As a Baby Boomer myself, I spend more time online these days… time I used to spend reading. But if reading is the activity that inspires me to write, how do I improve my writing by reading less? The simple answer is that I won’t.

Author Elizabeth Berg wrote an incredible essay in the Chicago Tribune Books section last weekend about her resolution to read more. Here's part of what she said:

A lot of people say they don't have time to read, not even an hour a day. Whenever I hear that, I always think of my partner Bill, who says, "Give up 'Wheel of Fortune' in favor of reading, and you can go through 25 books a year, and that's with taking the weekends off!"

In this age of multitasking, of speed for speed's sake, of pop-ups and links exhorting us to go somewhere else when we're not even done with where we are, it is a relief, if not salvation, for us to focus on one dang thing at a time. Instead of being lost for hours in the time-sucking quicksand of the Internet, one sits in dignified, tick-tock, one-blue-mountain silence and reads a page ... turns it ... reads the next page, and so on. Such an elegant act, reading, isn't it? And such an elegant image, a person sitting in a chair, a book resting on a lap, lamplight spilling onto the page. Can't you just feel your blood pressure lowering, contemplating such a thing?

I can, and I've decided to modify my resolution. Like Berg, I’m going to try and read more this year and spend less time online.

What about you? How much time do you spend online? Has your reading declined as a result? What do you think about that?


Jude Hardin said...

I think the internet--for the most part--is the intellectual equivalent to French fries and candy bars. We should create an entertainment pyramid, like the food pyramid, with the internet and television in the little triangle at the top.

Lee Lofland said...

I'm on the internet a lot, a whole lot. I'm either answering questions for other writers, researching, or reading blogs, but I always find time to read. In fact, I still manage to read two or three books each week.

I think I'm able to read that much because television programming has become subpar at best.

Maryann Mercer said...

Good question, Libby.I'm not on the net as much as some, but I always find time to sit down and read-oatmeal goes well with James Lee Burke (or anyone else for that matter)and Dennis Lehane's last book is in my lunch tote. As a bookseller I get to (re)discover exciting stuff. I'm also disappointed in a lot of TV these days, so that helps. I think the main issue with the internet and TV might be that each gives almost instant gratification; plots are wrapped up (if there are plots) in 60 or less minutes, google almost anything and it's there. It takes time to settle in with a book, and there are people who tell you that's not an option given their busy lifestyles.
On the other hand, I'm not sure exactly where audiobooks fit in the equation. They certainly don't require a comfy chair and tea, but they do make books accessible to those who might not otherwise take the time to check out the hard copy.
I like the entertainment pyramid idea too.

Dana King said...

Between working, being a dad, and writing, I don't have as much time as I'd like to read. I take the subway to work most days, so I can squeeze in 65-70 books a year. (The quality of television programming - aside from The Wire - aids this greatly.)

That being said, reading is the best way I know to keep me enthused about my writing. When I read something good, I want to write that well. When I read something bad, I think, "I can do better than this!"

Libby, thanks for the bikini pic. What are you looking for in it?

Libby said...

Funny, Dana... actually that was a still from SWEPT AWAY, probably Lina Wertmuller's best known film...

I can relate to what everyone says.. in a perverse sort of way, the writers' strike might actually help us read more, since what's on TV is worse than a vast wasteland.

Audio books are an interesting solution, Maryann... I always have one going in my car. Sometimes, if it's really gripping, I bring it inside to finish.

Lee, you are a wonder. I can't keep that pace. Wish I could.

And Jude, I love the entertainment pyramid. You should copyright it... fast... before someone else does!

Actually, Dana.. your opinion is exactly what encouraged me to write as well... I like to say I would die happy if I could write a paragraph as beautiful as James Lee Burke... but that is coupled with all the books I throw against the wall and say "I could do better than that..."

And so it goes...

Diane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diane said...

My laptop broke just before Christmas and I haven't had a computer at work since then. You wouldn't believe how much I've accomplished! I think that when the laptop comes back, I need to give myself a weekly budget of on-line time, and otherwise keep the network cord unplugged.

Jude Hardin said...


I've been reading a lot of James Lee Burke recently. Love it!

Consider the entertainment pyramid public domain. My contribution to humanity. :)

Anonymous said...

I work as a web producer at a TV station, so a lot of my at-work hours are spent online and/or watching TV.

But I am a huge, HUGE reader and a lot of my at-home time is spent reading. I usually read a book a week but that varies.

It's definitely hard, though. Right now there are also a lot of good movies being released on DVD, so that's a time-suck, too.

Kelly in Charm City

woodstock said...

I check email three or four times a day, and several websites I like to keep up with. But my reading pace stays steady. I began a log in january of 1999, and I've managed to keep it going, it's even survived a few computer crashes. When I began the log, I was working full time. I recorded between 2-3 books a week. I'm retired now, at home more or less all the time, and I still read at that pace. Thinking this over, I've decided that my reading pace is just part of my day in, day out routine. Although with a DSL connection for about nine months, my computer time has increased, nothing really impacts the reading. At least two members of a book discussion group I used to be a part of (it's since collapsed) thought I was strange because I read so much. I was always at a loss for something sensible to say in reply.

Sara Paretsky said...

Libby, I connect to everything you're saying. I so want my writing to improve-it depresses me to read from my new book while I'm on the road and see the many places that the writing is clunky or, in Sean's phrase, cluttered. And I'm not reading as much as I used to. But I have started a quite wonderful novel called The World to Come by Dara Horn, which has me so engrossed I don't want to be online--and makes me yearn to write better.


Anonymous said...

Sara: Bleeding Kansas was amazing and wonderful and one of the best, most fun books I've read in ages. Seriously. :) Please write more often. And I miss VI very much.


Barbara said...

I think the Internet has increased my reading - actually, I know it has. It's how I learn about 90% of the books I read. I keep notes on what I've read on LibraryThing, keep a list of what I want to read on Facebook's Virtual Bookshelf, and click into the library's online catalog to queue up my list. (I'd go to an indie mystery bookstore as well, but the nearest one is almost 2 hours drive away, so I indulge a few times a year. Also, I would make a very bad bank robber, which I would have to do to feed my addiction.)

That said, I think the Internet slows my writing. Research is quicker, but it's such a tempting rabbit hole, as are things like this blog.

Keith said...

I have three-year-old twins. Between the sleep deprivation and the sheer exhaustion, I can't spend more than a few minutes at a time reading--and then I need something not particularly intelligent. The Internet is perfect.