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Carol Hoenig

Carol Hoenig

Posted: August 22, 2007 09:07 PM

Are Books Becoming Obsolete?


A new report doesn't bode well for books. According to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released recently, one in four adults read not a single book last year, which explains the significant drop in book sales over the last few years, but doesn't explain why superstores, like Barnes & Noble and Borders, continue to expand.

There are many reasons why people don't read as they once did. The major reason is that there is a feast for the eyes without the need for settling down and focusing on the written word. Television provides a variety of images, video games deliver bright colors and packed action, and the Internet gives the power of immediacy. Books are something else all together--they are a quiet entertainment and we are no longer raised to know how to be "quiet." Richard Bustos from Dallas is a prime example:

"I just get sleepy when I read," said Richard Bustos of Dallas, a habit with which millions of Americans can doubtless identify. Bustos, a 34-year-old project manager for a telecommunications company, said he had not read any books in the last year and would rather spend time in his backyard pool.

This is discouraging news for the serious writer. Just yesterday, I lamented the difficulties of getting a traditional publishing book deal on my post here. Mainstream publishers are struggling since they are in the business of selling books. They must compete with the aforementioned forms of entertainment, and that is not an easy thing to do when money is to be made. This is why the latest publication of Harry Potter was met with such glee, even though with the dramatic discounts, bookstores didn't make much money from it. Still, the thinking was that it drove traffic into the stores and perhaps customers would pick up another book, along with that latest copy of Harry Potter.

But consider this:

Who are the 27 percent of people the AP-Ipsos poll found hadn't read a single book this year? Nearly a third of men and a quarter of women fit that category. They tend to be older, less educated, lower income, minorities, from rural areas and less religious.

I tend to think it also goes a little deeper. We are a busy people, most trying to stay ahead of the bills. We clock in overtime and forfeit vacations in order to pay the mortgage, and at the end of the day, most just want to collapse in front of the television with the remote in one hand, a beverage in the other, and not have to think.

But a book demands more from us. When one opens a book, one brings his or her experiences and knowledge, or hunger for knowledge, to the work and a new world can unfold with each turning page. Unfortunately, just like most media, there is a lot of fast food for the mind being published and people think that reading such commercial dribble keeps them in the know. On one level it does, but it is knowledge that serves no useful purpose. For publishers, it's a moneymaker because we are a fast food society unwilling to take time to digest sustenance.

Here are some more statistics:

People from the West and Midwest are more likely to have read at least one book in the past year. Southerners who do read, however, tend to read more books, mostly religious books and romance novels, than people from other regions. Whites read more than blacks and Hispanics, and those who said they never attend religious services read nearly twice as many as those who attend frequently.

There was even some political variety evident, with Democrats and liberals typically reading slightly more books than Republicans and conservatives.

The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds in the survey, more than all other categories. Popular fiction, histories, biographies and mysteries were all cited by about half, while one in five read romance novels. Every other genre -- including politics, poetry and classical literature -- were named by fewer than five percent of readers.

More women than men read every major category of books except for history and biography. Industry experts said that confirms their observation that men tend to prefer nonfiction.

What this fellow said mirrors how the industry has been responding:

"Fiction just doesn't interest me," said Bob Ryan, 41, who works for a construction company in Guntersville, Ala. "If I'm going to get a story, I'll get a movie."

Bearing that in mind, it's possible Ryan has seen the movie version of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, even if he hasn't read the book. What is sad about this is that if Lee were to pitch her novel to agents and editors now, it's quite likely she'd be hard pressed to find someone willing to publish it, since it is "too quiet to be commercially viable."

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