Friday, April 27, 2012
Why Don't People Read More?
The other day, Lance Polingyouma, my coworker at the Heard Museum Book Store, was dismayed to discover a printing error in the book he was reading, a collection of essays from a gathering of Grand Canyon historians. A large chunk of text was missing, and other chunks of text had been duplicated. This book is on Lance's Top Ten list for the bookstore, and he had been pushing it like crazy. He sold the other two copies we had and was thinking about buying the third, himself. Now we'll have to send that copy back to the publisher and get a replacement. At some point, the customers who bought the other two books could come in and demand their money back, if their books are also defective. We had to shrug and say, “Oh well. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
But as I was driving to work this morning, I began to wonder if we ever will get to it. Lance is a gifted bookseller – my old employer, Borders, would have drooled over his ability to pitch a book. And because Lance is of Hopi, many Anglo visitors to the Heard Museum hang on his every word. If he recommends a book, they tend to buy it. But that doesn't mean they'll ever read it.
When you're a bookseller, it's usually because you really like books. You like to think that people are going to read what you've sold them. But what we booksellers often forget is that dreaded thing, a thing from which we also cringe: the TBR pile. All of us have a mountain of books at home that are designated To Be Read. We're really interested in those books, we really intend to read them some day – but it's going to be a while before we read many of them, and some of them will never get read.
The problem is not-enough-time-in-the-day-itis. If you're fascinated with a lot of things, and you buy books about those things, the time eventually comes when you have to admit that you could read ten hours a day and not finish all of those books. And let's face it – you're not going to read ten hours a day, for all sorts of good reasons. You've got family and friends, a day job, maybe a garden, a household to run – maybe you're even afflicted with the writing bug yourself, and boy, does that cut into your reading time. So your TBR pile grows and grows. Eventually it can look more like a chore than a pleasure. Once that happens, your reading really slows down.
When books were first invented, readers didn't have this problem. The library at Alexandria burned down, another library at Herculanium was buried in volcanic ash, and Irish priests were sitting on most of what was left. So average readers didn't have as many titles they could buy. They had a shelf of favorite books (or scrolls) they could read over and over again. This may sound odd, but there's something to envy about that. Your other chores may have piled up back in those early days, but your book stack just couldn't get that ponderous.
Sill, anyone who enjoys reading would rather have our TBR piles. And now that young people enjoy reading more than ever, those stacks can only grow larger. When I first started working in a bookstore (back in the Dark Ages), adults pushed what few books were written for young people as if they were spinach. “Here, hold your nose and swallow this – it's good for you.” When kids discovered they liked a book, it was completely by accident. And if they wanted another book like it, they didn't have that much to choose from. The YA section in that store I worked in all those years ago had only two small shelves dedicated to YA books.
Now, thanks to J.K Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and other pioneering authors, you could fill an entire store just with YA titles. Kids are reading them, and so are adults. E-readers give people an even wider selection, at lower prices, so the virtual TBR stack is also growing.
Let's face it. We're doomed. We can only sit and stare into space, thinking, So many books, so little time. And that's the real reason why people don't read more. Lance and I can probably relax – even if those two books turned out to have printing errors, it may take those customers a couple of years to figure it out.