This year's Word on the Street was the twentieth anniversary of the festival, and seemed at least as good as the previous year's had been. The vendors I asked about business all reported that business at the festival was at least normal, if not busier than usual. Once again, it was a strong sign that the reading world is not as diminished as some would have us think.
Last year was my first time at the festival, and I mostly just walked around stunned that such a wonderful thing could exist. This year, I happened to attend the festival in a quiet mood, and while I admit I made a beeline to where I found all my favourite stalls last year (they were all mostly in the same places), I cast a more critical eye on the proceedings.
I'm sure it was there last year too, but one of the things that struck me this time around was how much of the festival was dedicated to encouraging children to read. There were stage events. Balloons. Prizes. Special booths. Clowns. Even in the areas more dedicated to texts for grown-ups, there were odds and ends of things to get kids to read.
Don't get me wrong: getting kids to read is a great and wonderful thing, and not just because I have a fear of the alphabet you are reading in now becoming as obscure as Linear A in my lifetime. But I couldn't help thinking that there was a huge swath of the population being ignored.
This large, multi-faceted marketing segment comprises a wide range of ages, tastes, and incomes. There is a lot of competition for its discretionary spending dollars, but the rewards for winning them over can be very rich indeed. Sadly, most of this group is known to read just one book a year — or less.
I speak, of course, of literate adults. A lot of them can be convinced by media hype to read The Lost Symbol, or a Harry Potter book or seven, or some Stephen King, once in a while, if a film isn't convenient. They aren't against reading, not most of them. But somehow they don't.
Why not? No doubt there are several exhaustive studies on the subject, all pointing to films, video games, TV, overwork, and plummeting literacy. Those may well be factors. But I think there is another factor.
No-one has made it normal to them for a grown-up to read.
Reading for pleasure has become a kid's thing. You read as a kid because grown-ups tell you it's good for you, and because you're made to in school. Later, you read because it's part of your job. But reading something from a book that made you laugh out loud, or cry, or rush to go tell someone because you couldn't bear the only one who knew its truth: how often does that happen to the average grown-up? Sure, we may all know grown-ups who are like that, but why isn't it normal? After all, it's a normal enough reaction to stories told by other means.
I propose that programmes be started to encourage reading for pleasure amongst grown-ups. Some ideas:
Book lovers: rant about books in terms your non-reading friends can understand. Don't compare the book to other books. Compare it to TV shows, or a movie, or your workplace, or anything else that would help show the non-reader your new favourite book can fit in their universe. Do the same in reverse: if someone admires a TV show, recommend a book of similar ilk.
TV & film writers: any chance of showing main characters reading, even when it's not a "bookish" film? Just as something normal to do on a Wednesday night? John Cusack seems to be able to play characters who read in a by-the-bye way, but he also seems to be about the only one. We need more actors playing characters that read, and for the reading to be no big deal — as normal as watching them make themselves dinner.
- Marketers: how about taking some (not a lot, just some) of that money you were going to spend on getting kids to read and spending it on their role models instead? Children who grow up in homes where the adults of the family read tend to become reading adults themselves, so it's twice the bang for the buck. Just saying.
Reading can be a cool grown-up thing to do. It can be normal. We just have to make it be that way.