by Hugh Gilmore
I began writing this column about books and reading seven years ago, in January of 2007. Much has changed in the world and in my life since then. This seems like a good time to explore both.
My first “The Enemies of Reading” column was subheaded “On the Hundred Books Aspired-to-Yearly Club.” I had pitched the Local’s editor, Peter Mazzaccaro, on the idea that I would try to read 100 books that year and keep the public informed of my progress.
In fact, the public would be invited to join me by establishing a specific quest of their own, in terms of numbers of books they read. Grist would be added to the column by my writing about the obstacles, both personal and cultural, I faced along the way. (TV, laziness, videotape rentals, sports, etc.)
Hence, the odd running title of this feature: “The Enemies of Reading.” I’m sure I would have chosen a less perplexing name (If he’s in favor of reading, why does he call the column “The Enemies of”?) had I known I’d still be writing about this inexhaustible subject seven years later.
Just to make the column seem erudite-with-a-wink, I preceded the first piece with an invented quote: “Happy as a mushroom collector bounding from the stables, I come to spread the joys of discoveries in Book Land.” I attributed the quotation to “ibid.” No one got the reference to BS except me, but I continued anyway.
I structured the column all through the first two years around the heavy-breathing idea that I was trying to get 100 books read before midnight of New Year’s Eve. I did. One year I actually finished my hundredth (“Moby Dick”) at 11:50 p.m. on Dec. 31. What fun, eh?
The stunt-reading concept was good for a while, but couldn’t last and eventually was dropped altogether in favor of columns focused on all matters relating to books and reading. That including the buying, selling and maintenance of books, as well as the emotions they provoke in people who love them.
In time, provoked by my own attempts to become a published author, the column began to include news and insights about writing too. I have never lacked for a good column idea since then. Faults in developing those ideas have been entirely homegrown.
When I began, I took it for granted that reading was a good thing, a necessary thing, and probably the best way to create a thoughtful world of wise citizens. It was also an entertaining and satisfying way of spending time.
So it seemed to me seven years ago. When I was promoting “reading,” I meant to refer to books – which meant only one thing to me then: books printed on paper. Then two things that woke me up happened in a short space of time. First, while walking past my son’s room and seeing him staring at his computer screen I caught myself sighing once again, wishing he would read instead.
But that day I suddenly realized that he was reading. He’s an expert in the field of recorded performance and he was learning new information and ideas every day. I had caught myself in a prejudice: If he’s watching a computer screen, he must be playing games. I was quite wrong.
The second eye-opener happened when a friend and colleague of mine on the Chestnut Hill Book Festival Committee brought his new Kindle to a meeting. My first reaction was to think he was being merely faddish, playing with his new toy.
Shortly thereafter I borrowed his device to “test drive” it for a series of columns I wanted to write about e-books. My first download was intended to be a true stress test for the new medium: “Madame Bovary.” After getting used to the Kindle, I got as lost in the story as I ever did. I was sold on their usefulness from then on.
Just to show you how one needs to bestraddle both worlds nowadays: I’ve written six titles in recent years that I published as e-books through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program. Sales did not pick up for the three longer works (two novels and a collection of stories) until I published them in printed paperback form also.
I think what has been gained is the element of choice. People prefer to read in different formats, according to their needs at the time. (Many travelers prefer e-books – which hold hundreds of titles at the same weight as one paperback – only to switch back to print once home.)
As for the “Enemies,” they’ve changed quite a bit. Videotapes are an almost phased-out form of technology, and DVDs will probably soon follow. Young people watch very little TV. That does not mean, however, that a lot of time has been freed up for reading.
There are only so many hours in the day, and those non-reading hours are now spent following Facebook and Twitter, texting, using various apps on smart phones, binge-watching streamed movies, and following any of tens of thousands websites and blogs. The “Enemies of Reading” have proliferated a hundred-fold since this column began.
Worse yet, it’s as though they’ve collectively taken a big gum eraser and rubbed out our brain’s ability to engage with ideas. Many people who used to read now feel unable to concentrate when they try to read. We’re becoming a nation of passive minds, suited merely to absorb only what’s thrown at us at flash speeds.