Last night I read some pretty grim statistics about the reading habits of adult Americans. I spent some time looking at various websites to try to validate the numbers. Nothing I read was surprising. There is a direct correlation between education level and reading habits and a direct correlation between a child’s exposure to reading materials at home and his or her reading skills. There are no revelations there. The percentage of people who claim that they read books on a regular basis varies, depending on education level but on average it’s safe to say that less than half of all adults in this country read books at all. I was motivated to look into this after reading a post at the author, Eileen Cook's website that I initially found at Seize a Daisy.I’ve been trying to figure out why some people can’t live without books and some people have no use for them. Almost everyone in my family, including my maternal grandfather who left school the age of nine, read books constantly. Secondary education didn’t factor in as there are few college graduates in my family. I don’t ever remember not reading. I remember the first time I did read words on a page. I remember books I read growing up – The Cat in the Hat, Stuart Little,
Sometime around sixth or seventh grade I started reading adult paperbacks. I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Love Story first and then I had pilfer books and read them in secret. There were stacks of books everywhere and when nobody was watching I read On the Beach, Alas Babylon, The Choirboys, The Carpetbaggers, The Happy Hooker (Yikes), Fear of Flying, Valley of the Dolls, Flowers for Algernon, The Exorcist, The Godfather, Trout Fishing in
I found a box of my father’s old books and entered my brooding junior high beatnik/existentialist phase, reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, The Stranger by Albert Camus and No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre. I vaguely remember No Exit and reading these books up in my room while blowing cigarette smoke out the attic window and feeling pretty sophisticated. They had an impact on me and that summer between seventh and eighth grades I was caught shoplifting – yes, in a bookstore – a book about becoming a writer. I’d inherited my mother’s portable Smith Corona and typed out my adolescent angst on onionskin paper in that attic room night after night.
The first adult book I ever read that was recommended by a friend my own age was Carrie, Stephen King’s debut novel. A boy in my American History class told me I had to read it because it was “wicked good”. That was 1976, my freshman year in high school and I read every word King wrote for the next decade. Mr. Walker, my Freshman English teacher marked up a story I turned in for having sentence fragments and ellipses. I tried to argue that Stephen King wrote like that and Mr. Walker told me Stephen King was a bad writer. So much for early reviews.
Mr. Walker and my other teachers introduced me to Shakespeare, Homer, Thornton Wilder, John Knowles, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Anne Frank, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, George Orwell, Tennessee Williams, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain. I remember all my English teachers and I loved the world they showed me.
I read whatever I could find for many years, especially when I was in the Air Force. There was a lot of “hurry up and wait” so at 2 A.M. in a tent in the snow, I was just as likely to be reading a paperback the person on shift before me left behind, whether it was a World War II story, a Tom Clancy thriller, the biography of Ted Bundy or When Bad Things Happen to Good People the person who relieved me was to be reading The Catcher in the Rye or Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. We swapped books constantly. The Stars and Stripes bookstore had a limited selection but I found a hardcover once called The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by a new writer called Michael Chabon, I stumbled onto one or two Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins books and I read everything Anne Rice wrote that I could get my hands on.
For many years I've been overwhelmed with new releases and the desire to read with a more educated and critical eye. I want books that make me think, show me something I’ve never seen, present a perspective I’ve never heard and use words in ways I couldn't imagine. As a lifelong lover of books, my taste and choices have evolved to suit the time in my life. I’ve missed out on reading so many good ones. That's the biggest drawback to a lack of higher education. New and intriguing works come out every day. I’ve added a new category of links to Eudaemonia, called Literary Criticism and I’m learning a lot from these thoughtful bloggers.
I’m pretty sure the era I grew up in is long gone.
How did you develop your love for books? Were you surrounded by them growing up? Who turned you on to books you loved as a teenager and young adult? Do your children love books as much as you do? Has your taste in books stayed pretty consistent or has it varied widely? What can be done to increase the number of readers in this country?Note: A subsequent visit to Eileen Cook's site indicates she has started a revolution! Apparently I was only one of a lot of people who decided to pick up the ball and blog about this. Better still, there are some creative and hilarious suggestions about how to remedy this crisis. Stay tuned and look for more revolutionaries in the coming days.