I recently put this piece on my Wonderlands blog, and it aroused a good amount of lively comment. So I thought I'd post it here as well:
In the most recent issue of Cemetery Dance magazine, British horror editor Stephen Jones repeats his assertion that 'almost no one reads books any more.' In fact, he repeats it at length, opining that, because of competition from the visual media, mass market books will go 'the way of the vinyl record,' reading will revert to being 'a gentleman's pursuit,' and there'll only be the independent presses left to pander to it.
Now, I've known Steve for more than twenty years. He generally goes in with both guns blazing on most issues, which is one of his strengths. And he's right to be concerned about the state of modern culture. But I think he's over-shot the mark this time. Except he's not alone in that. I've been hearing almost all my adult life how movies, TV, and now computers are going to leave us with a world where no one bothers to pick up a paperback any more. Which, I think, is to ignore some basic facts. Let's look at this calmly for a moment.
FILM has been around as a very popular form of mass entertainment since the early Thirties, almost ninety years by now. And there's no sign yet of Barnes & Noble closing down because of it. Yes, film plus TV -- namely videos and DVDs -- has made some inroads into people's reading habits. But on the whole, films and books have enjoyed a reasonably cosy symbiosis. How many people, for instance, will read The Kite Runner because they saw the movie first. On a personal level, I might never have read a word by John O'Brien -- a superbly powerful author -- if I hadn't been to see the movie of Leaving Las Vegas. Films, then, do not seem to be the problem you might first suppose. It only takes a couple of hours to watch a movie, after all. Plenty of time left for reading.
TELEVISION has undoubtedly made inroads into reading habits ... no slightest question of it. But as badly as some people would have us believe? It hasn't been around as long as movies, but it has been around since the Fifties. Barnes & Noble is still there. And remains there despite the fact that several generations -- including my own -- have grown up being suckled at the glass teat. I'd suggest the following. That whatever damage TV might have done is, well, done. We've seen most of the worst of it. And the figures seem to bear this out. Ask any US mass market editor, and you'll be told that the numbers of people who read dropped about a decade ago, but then levelled out. Reading has not, in other words, gone into freefall becase of the boob tube. I'd suggest something else as well -- that, although there are some good shows out there, so much TV these days is cheap 'reality,' 'talent,' or 'celebrity' junk that the only people who'd watch it non-stop are the type who have only a 50-50 chance of holding a book the right way up in the first place.
COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY falls into two basic areas, the INTERNET and VIDEO GAMES. And I do concede that there's cause for concern here. Both activities are obsessive and time consuming. Neither activity taxes the more intellectual part of the mind, the part you need for reading. But even to this dark cloud there remains a silver lining, namely the large sections of the Internet given over to books and reading. There are publishers out there on the web, booksellers, review sites, online magazines and novels, readers' social sites like Library Thing and Goodreads (not to mention this one), hundreds of sites given over to matters relating -- especially -- to fantasy fiction. And that's not even mentioning the thousands of blogs written by avid readers, some of whose book consumption is truly phenomenal. All of which provides some kind of counterbalance to the guys out there playing Grand Theft Auto over and over again (and who I hope stay put behind their PCs, because I don't relish the idea of meeting them in any dark alley).
The fact is, every time that I get on a Tube train -- that's a subway train to most of you -- every time I go on a beach or sit beside a swimming pool, I'm surrounded by people who are not only reading books, but a wide variety of different ones. And therein I think lies the real problem. It's not that people do not want to read ... it's that the pace of modern life leaves them with little time to do so. When they get a chance to devour a novel -- commuting, or on vacation -- they tend to grab it with both hands. Which gives me hope. What do you think? Why not enter the poll at the top of this page, although I'd welcome longer opinions as well.
Eric Bernt's "The Speed of Sound," the movie
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