You'd think that with the long lines of people waiting to buy the new Harry Potter book the moment it was available, we live in a country of rabid readers. Yeah, right. If we do, it's only because people are foaming at the mouth at the thought of having to read a book. According to a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll, the average adult read only four books last year. For those of you who are too busy flipping through "The Tipping Point" wondering when it gets to the details about how you push a sleeping cow over, it means the average adult reads about 822 words of a book per day, which is less than one word per waking minute or about 5 percent of the time the average person spends watching TV. It makes you proud that you know what average means, doesn't it?
Keep in mind that those are the avid readers. It turns out that one in four adults in this country didn't get around to reading a book at all last year. No novel, no biography, no Harlequin romance, not even a copy of "How to Increase Your Vocabulary Without Reading This Book." Why not? One man quoted in the article that accompanied the poll results said it's because he gets sleepy when he reads. Besides, he went on to say, he'd rather spend his time hanging out in his backyard pool.
Uh, excuse me, didn't anyone tell him about beach reading? You know, where you relax in the sun and read at the same time. Maybe if we called it poolside multitasking it would help. Keep in mind that no one expects you to zip through the collected works of Thomas Pynchon while sipping mojitos on your inflatable raft. They're actually much better suited to curling up in front of a roaring fire with a hot toddy in hand so you can throw them in and read yet another David Sedaris collection. Heck, if everyone felt this way about reading by the pool, Danielle Steele would never sell another book. On second thought, maybe that's not such a bad thing.
If people aren't reading, then what are they doing with their time? Most experts point to TV, movies and the Internet as taking up more of our valuable leisure time. At least the experts who aren't too busy watching YouTube videos of a bulldog lip-syncing "Who Let the Dogs Out" while riding on a skateboard to answer their e-mail. But it's not like adults aren't reading at all. We read magazines, Crate and Barrel catalogs, and Web sites we accidentally stumble into that aren't filled with photographs. What we don't read are warning labels, instruction manuals, ingredient labels on nondairy creamer, nutritional labels on anything that tastes really good, and books. Oh yeah, and newspapers.
Newspaper readership is steadily declining. Publishers are scrambling to figure out how best to lure people back, the result usually being that they eliminate as many boring words from the front page as possible and replace them with splashy color photos of pandas.
If people continue to stop reading newspapers, they're going to all go the way of the Weekly World News. That's right. After 28 years the supermarket tabloid that never let a fact get in the way of a good story has stopped publishing a print edition. That means from now on, you're going to have to flip through something highbrow in the checkout line while waiting for the woman in front of you to convince the checker that the 10-cent clove of garlic is supposed to be half off this week. You know, something like The Star, Us or The Astrological Guide to Diet, Exercise and Word Jumbles.
This also means that if you want to read about the alien who introduced Elvis to Hillary in the hope that she'll make him her vice presidential running mate, you'll have to check it out online. Don't worry, there aren't too many words there.
I could write a book about why it's important to read, but of course the people who need it most would never open it. They might buy it, put it prominently on the coffee table, even use it as a doorstop, but crack it open and read it? No thanks.
The only way they'd get the information is if it were turned into a movie, video game or theme park ride. Maybe if there were more books about what people really care about, they'd read more. Books like "Chicken Soup for the TiVo," "How to Teach Your Dog to Fetch the Cheetos," and an inspirational book about how Paris Hilton, Britney and Lindsay Lohan have worked to clean up their lives called "Three-Hab." It would definitely be a best seller, especially if it was mostly photos with only a few icky words thrown in because, well, face it, paparazzi won't let their photos be published without their names appearing underneath the pictures.
In the meantime, we can just sit back and hope J.K. Rowling changes her mind and writes another book, "Harry Potter and the Lazy Audience." Personally, I'll wait for the movie to come out. S
©2007 Barry H. Gottlieb All Rights Reserved.
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