Has reading become a specialist activity?

20:51, Jan 09 2014

Well literary folk, it's the start of another year! May 2014 provide some fruitful reading for us all.

I hate starting the year on a slightly sour note, but this article where Ruth Rendell laments the fact that reading has become "a specialist activity which only a minority enjoy regularly, rather than something most people do routinely" struck a chord with me.

As an avid reader, most of my friends and acquaintances also read, but I have definitely come across those who confess not just to not being readers, but do so with a kind of hidden pride - as if not reading is a badge of honour. 

The article, which also quotes Man Booker-nominated novelist Philip Henscher, who says: "I said in an interview once that you can genuinely tell when you meet a person if they have never read a novel: that there is something missing there. People were outraged that I would even suggest such a thing."

There have been studies done to prove that reading literary fiction actually improves a person's sense of empathy. The study, which involved 1000 participants, used a series of methods to determine that those who read literary fiction (works by Tea Obrecht of The Tiger's Wife fame, or Anton Chekhov), scored consistently higher when it came to identifying emotions in others.

One scientist interviewed about the experiment said "often what you learn from novels is to be a bit baffled...a novel tells you not to judge. In Great Expectations, Pip is embarrassed by Joe, because he's crude and Pip is on the way up. Reading it, you ask yourself,  what is it like to be Pip and what is it like to be Joe? Would I behave better than Pip in his situation? It's the spaces which emerge between the two characters where empathy occurs".


I realise there is a danger here of making reading seem like some kind of elitist past-time by spouting all sorts of high-brow notions that basically amount to that reading makes you somehow better and smarter (perhaps true). My actual argument is that reading should be for everyone.

I firmly believe there is no such thing as someone who isn't a reader. They just haven't found the right book. Or the right book hasn't found them.

Perhaps people don't read because they think it's too time-consuming. They've had bad experiences with it in the past, an impatient teacher or too-strict parents. They don't come from families that value reading. They have other hobbies that consume most of their time. So the list goes on.

There are vast swathes of illiterate people out there in the world. You and I are privileged enough not to be one of them. I believe it's a waste of an education not to read and be exposed to new ideas, theories and stories.

Going back to what I quoted earlier about how reading increases someone's ability to see the world through the eyes of others, very To Kill A Mockingbird, a world where everyone has more empathy for others, are more thoughtful and better able to express their emotions seem positively Utopian to me.

It is our responsibility as people who read not just to nurture the next generation of readers, but also to create a strong sense of community for ourselves, to encourage and inspire those we meet who claim "not to read" to pick up the right book, and to generally, in the words of Cormac McCarthy, carry the torch.

How can we encourage more people to read?

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