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Pleasure Principle of Reading

07/27/04 12:00AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) A recent national survey finds an alarming decline in reading nationwide. It's a threat to the nation itself, but commentator Peter Gilbert finds hope in the "pleasure principle."


(Gilbert) A recent national survey warns that Americans are reading less, and reading less fiction and poetry, in particular.

A decade ago, 54 percent of Americans read "literature," which the survey defines as narrative fiction, poems, and plays. Now that number's 47 percent, a seven percent drop. Admittedly, that doesn't include nonfiction - history, biography, serious analysis of current issues. That can be good stuff - worth reading. But it's a shame that fiction seems to be losing "reading share" to nonfiction. And the percentage of people reading any book declined in ten years from 61 to 57 percent. That's alarming.

The decline was most pronounced among the youngest surveyed: Only 43 percent of people 18-24 had read any literature in 2002, down ten percent in a decade. The usual suspects seem to be part of the cause - TV, movies, the web, and computer games. It's easy to blow an hour or two on the web or watching TV without making a conscious decision to spend the evening that way. And compared to those media, some people now find reading too slow, too low-tech, too labor-intensive - too hard.

But there's hope. I put my confidence in pleasure - in the fact that reading's fun. People just need to come to know - or to re-discover - the joy of reading. We read not because it's good for us, but because we like it: it's interesting, captivating, informative, inspiring, escapist - fun. The Caster Oil "Read-Silas-Marner-because-it's-good-for-you" School of Reading Encouragement isn't usually very effective. If we don't like to read, we don't read -whether it's good for us or not. I've got a dusty exercise bike in my basement that I know is good for me.

Regardless whether people's reading skills are weak or strong, the key to having them actually read is finding books that interest them - books they want to read. There are excellent things written on virtually every subject. As Robert Frost said, "There's a book side to everything." And there's fiction that can captivate everyone. Ask a librarian for suggestions.

One way to increase the fun is to focus on the social - not just the solitary - side of reading. People love to talk about a good book with others - and they get more out of it as a result. There are reading and discussion series in a hundred public libraries statewide - free, with books provided. Private book groups also abound. Reading with a group makes it more fun.

Not only is it pleasurable for individuals to read. It's also important that our society is collectively a reading society. We all have a vested interest in people reading, in quality public libraries, quality formal education, and lifelong learning. Community and country depend on it. A reading citizenry is an informed, thoughtful, and active citizenry.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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