When catching up with an old acquaintance I have not seen for years or in general conversation with someone I have just been introduced to, invariably the question will eventually come around to “What do you do for living?”
After telling them that I work for a bargain book distribution company and explaining a bit about my job, the typical follow-up question is, “Do people still read?” I usually respond with a sharp quip that I hope people are still reading for another 15 or 20 years so I don’t have to go looking for another job before I retire! However, the question is still a valid one— I think especially so for the younger generation. Are people still engaged in reading at the same level as say 10, 20, or 40 years ago? Are young people today inclined to read a book? And I don’t really think it matters whether it is a print or electronic book, although we print book sellers are certainly pulling for the one over the other! But I don’t think we should be as concerned over the format of the book as much as whether or not people are still reading.
The Pew Research Center conducts a yearly survey about book reading trends in America, and it is interesting to note that the amount of reading is relatively unchanged over the past few years based on the 2016 survey. What the survey has also uncovered is that print books are still the preferred medium for most readers; the amount of people reading a book on a dedicated e-reading device is pretty much flat. Where there is growth in e-reading is on tablets (multi-use devices) or smartphones. Put me firmly in the category of preferring to read a printed book, though. That might make me old school, but I just cannot wrap my head around reading a book on my phone—if I ever did it had better be a short story!
Regardless of the medium, I believe the challenge for our society, especially for those of us in the book industry, is how to engage the youth of today to be readers in an age of so much distraction. We all love having instant access to a wealth of information at our fingertips or the ability to communicate with someone immediately without having to make a phone call or even send an email. We can watch our favorite programs when we want on our DVR or Netflix without the intrusion of commercials. Our communications are in the realm of 140 characters or less, and everywhere we look people are walking with their heads down staring at their handheld devices. I marvel when I go out to eat and see a family sitting together and no one is talking to each other because they are all on their devices. So how do we get the youth of today to slow down their busy and distraction-filled lives and pick up a book to invest some time reading, learning, expanding their minds or imagination, and losing themselves in a good story?
The Harry Potter era was certainly a wonderful time for booksellers as it really engaged a generation of new readers, but it has been over ten years since The Deathly Hallows, and nothing has really come close to matching that level of sustained excitement and anticipation for a new installment in a series. Waiting for the next big thing to come along to draw in a new crop of readers is wishful thinking, but I think it is also unnecessary. There are so many great books that are just waiting to be read, and what we need to do is encourage reading from an early age. The hope is once children get started and with some helpful prompting, we can create more book lovers. For instance, my eldest daughter loves to read but has a hard time deciding what to read next. Based on her tastes and sense for adventure I recommended the Redwall series to her. It was not received with much enthusiasm at first and I had to keep encouraging her to give it a try and get past those first couple of chapters so that she could see the story start to build and then get wrapped into it. It took some time and the book was on and off again for a couple of weeks, but finally the story grabbed her and now she is deep into book two and I am sure well on her way to devouring the series.
I do have a vested interest in the success of the publishing industry because of my career, but more than that, as a father of four children I want to see my kids reading, enjoying a good story, and learning about new and exciting things. And the sooner we can start them on this journey the better! At Book Depot we have the privilege of working with some great non-profit organizations that are dedicated to putting books in less privileged children’s hands at no cost. We also are involved with some local schools where we donate books for their reading incentive programs. I don’t mention these things in order to congratulate ourselves, but to raise awareness that we all can do our part to help the cause of literacy and try to engage more readers. As a book-related community I think we all share the responsibility to encourage children to read with the hopes that this will open up a world of opportunities for them.