Frank Zubek is an online buddy of mine. We met a couple of months ago when we both began work on the Kindle All-Stars Project. As a writer, he's very passionate about the state of the writing industry today as well as our nation's reading habits. I asked him for permission to post this essay when he sent along a draft copy of it a while back. It appeared originally in his blog a couple of weeks ago. I'm in the process of re-editing Frank's novella, Charlie's Corner and it will be re-released soon. In the meantime, check out Frank's blog.
The State of Literacy- And The Lack Of It
By Frank Zubek
Have you bought a book or newspaper or magazine to read this week?
Or checked something out of the library?
Or at the very least, been to a used bookstore?
Unfortunately, you’re not alone. Here are some depressing numbers.
America has an estimated population of over three hundred million people.
If we discount very young children, text happy teens, people who watch television and senior citizens, there are, by my personal estimate, just under fifty million people in America who can read. Many of them make enough money to afford to buy books and if not- they certainly have access to a library.
And yet, they don’t read. At least not according to the numbers that I dug up. At best maybe a few million people read for entertainment.
Here are a few examples:
Only a handful of the most popular magazines out there boast monthly circulation numbers of up to ten million. A few dozen barely have circulation numbers in the upper six figures. Here is a link. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_magazines_by_circulation (and you might find it interesting that this link features the circulation numbers of magazines from around the world- a world with a population over six billion people).
Another example for you: A few of the most popular newspapers claim circulation numbers of three million daily readers.
And yet I wonder just how much of any newspaper is read from front page to back?
Aside from skimming a headline or two from the front page or metro section, I think the most read portions of any newspaper in any part of the world are: Sports, obits, comics and the coupons.
Are you shocked? I think you should be.
Dozens of magazines folded this year and an entire bookstore chain closed down (Borders). I have no easy answers nor am I an expert on the industry. I’m just a humble Cleveland writer with a couple of e-books to my name. But I am concerned about the next generation and I want to do something.
I am well aware that there are a large number of distractions out there that are more fun to do than read. Television, sporting events and electronic games just to name a few.
And I’ll admit that books aren’t for everybody.
And yet I still feel that the number of people who read for entertainment purposes is far below what it should be (when compared to the numbers of sports fans or fans of any number of popular television shows).
Of course, there are excuses for NOT reading and I’m sure that you’ve heard them.
EXCUSE NUMBER ONE: Books are too expensive. And I’ll grant you that. But most major cities have good used bookstores nearby. If you prefer shopping online Amazon has a used book selection.
I’m sure with a little bit of sacrifice, you can find the money you need for a book. Maybe skip a box of smokes one week or buy a book instead of those lottery tickets?
EXCUSE NUMBER TWO: I don’t have time to read a book.
It seems to me that more people seem to find the time to make up excuses NOT to read than they do to simply make time to read. I find that sad.
But allow me to poke holes in that excuse also.
By reading a book just fifteen minutes a day, you should be able to finish an average book of three hundred pages in no time. (Your reading speed may vary)
Sure, reading a book is a solitary experience. And maybe that’s another reason why people avoid it. When it’s just you and three hundred pages full of words it can be a bit intimidating.
But that’s still no excuse.
I understand that being at a football game or in a movie theater is more comfortable. It’s a communal experience.
So why not read with the family/kids/friend? Read aloud or take turns reading? Especially with kids as it will help them with their grades in the long term.
EXCUSE NUMBER THREE: I prefer shorter stories.
No problem. There are plenty of short story anthologies out there. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_literary_magazines
Go to a Barnes and Noble store and ask them about Tin House or Glimmer Train or Zoetrope. Any one of these magazines features a good number of interesting short stories, essays and poems.
If you’re not sure where in the store these books are located- ask the clerk. Most will be happy to help you out because they want to make the sale.
If money really is a problem- why not ask the library and see if they can get one or two literary magazines in their catalog? You never know until you ask. And even if their budgets do no allow for new purchases, many literary magazines allow for subscriptions.
If nothing else, the library has thousands of copies of various anthologies.
Can you handle at least a thousand words in one sitting? Check out free short stories here:
We all suffer from it at some point in our life.
Are you shy about being seen with an actual book in your hand?
I understand that. So why not invest in a Kindle? Or a Nook? (Check Barnes and Noble)
It’s the newest toy (people love toys- people get jealous if YOU have a toy and they don’t) and both are affordable to most budgets. Even these days! Hell, even I have one! And I’m broke!
Once that’s done there are a few hundred thousand books available on Amazon or through Barnes and Noble that you could choose from that start at 99 cents. Even more are free! Do a little homework!
Not sure what to get? Amazon books have starred reviews from honest customers. So the more three, four and five starred reviews a book has, the better your chances at a great reading experience!
If you prefer some pictures to go along with your reading material, may I suggest…
They aren’t “just” for kids anymore. In fact Barnes and Noble, Books a Million and many libraries carry a wide variety of them now. And they come in graphic novel form now- so you can read an entire story arc in one sitting and not wait month to month for the story to unfold. And comics are no longer JUST super heroes these days. You will be shocked at the variety.
And if you have an iPad- some comic book companies have made certain comics they publish available through APPs.
By the way- short stories are a great source of material for Hollywood.
Were you aware that many movies were made from short stories? Yep! Check out the list here in this link. After you see the film- make the effort to read the source material!
Okay, so now we have a book or magazine in hand.
We need: PLACES TO READ.
Books can be read at more places than “just” the beach.
You could read on the subway to and from work.
Taking the bus? Get that book out of the briefcase or purse and start reading.
Audio books. The library has a variety available. The classic cassettes, CD’s as well as digital formats
Does the lawn need to be cut this weekend? Make your kid cut the lawn for you and sit down with an ice tea and catch up on a novel (or magazine article)
Don’t have kids? Call up the neighbor and give THEIR kid a few bucks for the chore. Meantime- YOU can sit back with an ice tea and catch up on that magazine article you’ve been meaning to look at.
Instead of Letterman or Leno- catch up on that novel-
Did you know that their shows have twenty minutes of commercials? IN fact ANY one- hour TV series you watch has twenty minutes of commercials. If you watch just one show a week that’s over an hour and a half worth of reading per month!
So instead of surfing around the 350 available channels on your overpriced cable subscription, hit that mute button and read for seven minutes until your show returns.
Bored with the treadmill at the gym? Set it for a slower speed and read a book or magazine while getting in shape! (Or if you want to look cool- this is where those Playaway audio books come in handy. Another idea- take a Playaway Audio Book with you when you ride your bike)
Waiting for the wife while she’s shopping? A book or magazine is a great way to kill time.
And finally, there’s always the bathroom. (Just be sure to wash your hands afterward!)
So you see? You really haven’t got any excuse for not reading.
Again- I don’t have all the answers. But I find it sad that the numbers I’ve discussed here are accepted as the standard for the industry.
In fact, the industry itself seems to accept these numbers as “the standard”.
I wish I knew how to spread the word and get people more active in the enjoyment of reading. Because the industry could sure use the boost and so could the economy.
In fact, this essay hasn’t really got a proper ending.
Nor should it. Because the fight for literacy is an ongoing process-and we’re losing!
Just ask a Borders employee. Yes, the literary landscape has certainly changed in the past few years.
For one thing- Borders is closed.
For another, libraries are now used more for the computer access and video selections than for the books.
And e-books, once thought of as a fad, are fast becoming an industry in and of itself.
Truth be told- I love the traditional books as well as the e-formats. I do not support the theory that e-books will wipe out paper books. For one thing, it’s THANKS to the e-format that literacy numbers have jumped the past few years. And isn’t that the point?
Thousands of years ago stories used to be told around campfires at the end of the day and now they are told both on paper as well as electronic devices.
It’s the SHARING of the story that originated from someone’s imagination that matters. We need to keep that alive- not fight about the downfall of paper books because of electronic ink.
People are READING!
Let’s keep focused on that okay?
Now go out there and spread the word! Post this on your blog!
Mass E-mail it to friends of yours who read.
E-mail it to a few who don’t. Print a copy or two and mail it to someone you love.
In fact, the Holidays are upon us again and I bet you’re stuck for a gift, right? How about a gift card to a bookstore for a friend? (Because maybe things are tight for them financially and you know they love reading)
Were you also aware that Neil Gaiman has suggested a new tradition for Halloween? It’s called “All Hallows Read” http://www.allhallowsread.com/extras/
Give someone a scary book to read for Halloween. This way they get a treat and not cavities.
Do you have more ideas or are you aware of other people and places spreading the word? Feel free to chime in here and post it below. Please add more ideas to this post as you see fit.
In fact- I hereby grant you permission to copy/paste this and post it on your blog. If you like, e-mail me and I’ll grant you an interview to go along with it. Just send me a list of questions.
Lets spread the word about literacy. Because I’m well aware that it’s going to be mostly people who DO read who will read this. It’s up to all of US to get people who don’t read BACK into the habit.
I can be reached by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
My Blog: www.whatbrickwall.blogspot.com/
And also twitter @frankzubek
Thanks for your time and for sharing this essay.