Friday, May 18th, 2001

This is really depressing . For anyone who doesn’t feel like following that link and reading the whole Washington Post article, I’ll sum it up for you: more and more people in America who can read are choosing not to - they are not “illiterate" but “aliterate." (Do you feel the urge to go and read that article for yourself now?)

Though it doesn’t actually come as a surprise to me that so many people don’t like to read, it does baffle me and frighten me and make me feel quite despondent all around. You know, in the Middle Ages, people were harassed by the clergy to the point of being called heretics for wanting to have and read their own Bibles. Words are power, and literacy is the key to unlocking that power. It’s a key that, for long periods of history, only the privileged few were allowed to possess. It’s a key that large portions of the world’s population have absolutely no access to, even to this day. And it’s a key that other people now have and apparently want to throw away in favor of sound bites and summaries.

How can someone not like to read? I suppose that another person might say, “How can someone not like to run marathons?” or, “How can someone not like to go bungee jumping?” I know there’s no accounting for other people’s tastes. I guess there are people who think that reading is too slow or too boring, or that it requires too much effort, or it’s just not worth the bother. I understand that people might think this way, but I can’t help but feeling that they’ve just missed something. Somewhere along the line, they didn’t pick up on the power of the written word. They skimmed too fast and wound up missing the whole point.

This is a topic that’s close to my heart because I have been an avid reader my entire life. I’m the type of person who sits at the breakfast table and reads the milk carton and the cereal box. I read the stuff printed on plastic bags. I read the tube of toothpaste while I’m brushing my teeth. If there is writing somewhere, anywhere, I will read it. There are, in fact, very few hours in every day during which I’m not reading something or other.

As usual, this started when I was a kid. Before I was even old enough to read myself, I would rope members of my family into reading to me for hours on end. The childhood anecdote that pops up again and again in my family - related by my mother, father or grandmother - is this: “I’d say to Jessica, ‘Okay, you go get a book, and I’ll read to you’ - so she’d run down the hallway in her little pajamas, and you’d hear a ‘rustle, rustle’ from her bedroom, and then she’d come out again with a stack of books so tall that she couldn’t even see over it - she’d totter down the hallway with books slipping off the top of the pile, and I’d groan and think, ‘One book, Jessica…’"

As I got older, I read more and more. As a shy teenager, I probably spent a lot more time with books than with people. I think I was only person in my English class in high school who actually enjoyed having to read The Scarlet Letter and The Grapes of Wrath. In college, I rarely had time to read for pleasure because I had so much to read for my classes. But my love of books did not, and has not, waned. I may not go through a book a day anymore, like I used to when I was 15, but I still think there are very few pleasures like the pleasure I get from reading a really good book.

Books are a total immersion thing for me. If I’m really into a book, then the outside world just disappears. I get an immense, tingly pleasure when I know that I have a good book that is waiting to be read. The anticipation of reading it is like the anticipation of Christmas. When I hold a book in my hand, I sometimes marvel at the thought that I am holding what amounts to an entire world. I love the feel of books, the smell of them, the way the writing looks on the page. I love their compactness and their promise of adventure.

And I think books are a lot more interactive than most people give them credit for. With a book, the story is already there in its entirety, but you take it in at your own pace. At the exciting bits, you read faster (and try to prevent yourself from looking ahead a few pages to find out what happens). At the convoluted bits, you read more slowly. When a passage is beautiful, you read it two or three times before moving on. When a passage is sad, the page gets blurred, so you wipe the tears from your eyes and you read it again. With a book, the pacing is, to a certain extent, up to you, the reader.

Granted, watching TV is a bit easier. In a book, things aren’t handed to you in quite the same way as they are with television or movies. Make no mistake: I love movies, and I watch an awful lot of TV. Movies and TV shows can certainly be challenging and engrossing, and you can’t really compare them to books because they are such different media. And as for pacing: videos and DVDs make it possible to rewind and fast-forward and look at scenes more closely, and there are definitely scenes in certain movies that warrant being looked at again and again (I could watch the opening sequence of “Blade Runner” a million times and never get tired of it). And there are many, many books that are so bad that you would probably be much better off watching TV than reading them.

And yet… if I were to be stuck on a desert island and had to choose between either watching my favorite movie or reading my favorite book for the rest of my life, I think I would have to choose the book (whatever it may be). I am a bibliophile at heart, an unrepentant bookworm. And at the risk of sounding horribly patronizing, I have to say that I really feel sorry for people who just don’t “get" books. They truly don’t know what they’re missing.



Hi Jessica - As a kindred spirit, I have to say I love your website with it’s clean and functional design. It’s so nice to read a web page that’s not full of spelling and grammatical errors and actually has something to say.

I also see a lot of movies, but will never give up on my first love: books. I was reading the "Complete Works of Shakespeare" under the covers by torchlight when I was ten, and devouring a book a day at fourteen. And yes, I read cereal boxes, milk cartons and toothpaste tubes too.

My husband is also a bibiophile, although I don’t think I knew that when we got married twenty-odd years ago. He, however, reads non-fiction exclusively. I enjoy non-fiction, but love the complete escape of immersing myself in a good novel.

We are Australian, but have been living in a little town in Panamá for the past nine months. Cut off from access to good libraries and bookshops, we’ve had to resort to ordering books on-line. Goodness only knows how we’re going to ship them home when we leave in a couple of months.

I couldn’t agree more with your last two sentences. It must be a very limiting world indeed when you can’t fill it with the wonder of words.


Posted by Nadine Ireland


Arrgh! Scratch "with it’s clean" for "with its clean" in my first line.

Posted by Nadine (again)

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