In light of the latest National Endowment for the Arts’ study about Americans’ declining reading habits, The New York Times ran a story Sunday about the mystery of why people read. It featured the predictable anecdotes about how a particular book encountered while young and ignorant turned on such authors as Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz. Although interesting in that regard, the Mokoto Rich story shed little light on the process of becoming a regular reader — only confirming the feeling of helplessness or frustration the NEA data imparts.
There is always going to be something serendipitous about the link-up between the right book and the person who will appreciate it. What should be asked is not how young readers get started but how do they stay readers, how do they become habitual readers? This, after all, is the focus of the NEA study: A decline in “recreational reading” reportedly has led to a decline in reading and writing skills.
Yet — pleasant surprise — we actually know a few things about how the reading habit starts. And how it might be encouraged. I wish I could remember the book I read that mentioned this — and if this rings any bells for readers, please let me know. But this is how the process works: A parent or teacher may suggest a book that lights up a young reader. Or the would-be bibliophile may well pull it off a shelf on his own. This will inevitably lead him or her to seek to replicate the experience, to find other books that deliver whatever thrills or fantasies the first one supplied.
But this exploration will eventually die out unless the young reader encounters someone else roughly his own age who shares the same enthusiasm. In short, no matter how kindly or inspiring a teacher or parent might be, no matter how well-funded the reading program is, a kid has to find a kid or kids like herself to compare notes, swap secrets, share the excitement.
A book creates a little world joining author to reader, but that world is fragile and deeply individual (it’s why my mental image of Bertie Wooster is slightly different from your image of him and why all the movie images are disappointing in some way). That fragile bookish world, however, can gain strength if it’s confirmed by others. “You like Jim Shepard’s stories, too?” we say when we encounter another devotee. The isolating experience of reading now becomes a way of connecting to others, even if only silently, through the words on the page.
So if schoolteachers or librarians want to spark young readers and keep that spark going, then supplying appropriate books, accessible, exciting books is just the start (although given No Child Left Behind, many teachers can’t even do that — the tests don’t measure novels being read for pleasure). What is also needed are fan clubs, reading groups. Or just have students tell their classmates about their favorite book, their personal discoveries. It’s like activating a word-of-mouth campaign. And talking about books, comparing and evaluating them, is almost as much fun as reading them.
Oh. Wait. Scratch that last part. Jeezus. That’s how critics start.