Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Friday, December 09, 2005

A gene for reading resistance?


[gary daily col. 19 June 2, 2002]

“He's like me, he doesn’t like to read either.”
--from a conversation about a son’s school problems overheard at a local coffee shop

Here’s a bad news-good news bulletin just in.

A survey reports: “The average reader spends 17 minutes a day reading a newspaper, compared to 11 minutes on a novel. . . . six minutes on non-fiction, five minutes with a magazine, and two minutes looking up things they don’t understand in a reference book.” The “good” side of this report is that the survey is for Great Britain and not for Vigo County.

However, I must admit to having a strong feeling that all of Vigo County still has not read David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars,” the book chosen as The Book “All of Vigo County” should read and discuss together. I enlist all of you to help get the word out to non-reading readers about “If All” and encourage them to read “Snow Falling.”

Here are a few ideas on how and how not to approach this delicate, but important task.

Just how do you reach someone who limits their print ingestion to magazines in doctors’ offices and claims that’s the worst part of their visit? What do you say to someone whose reading habits have atrophied to the point where they find it difficult to even skim the descriptions on the backs of video boxes? Where do you start with a friend or neighbor or co-worker who reasons that books can’t be worth opening because their friends or neighbors or co-workers never read books? Sticky problems, no?

But you should say: “I Don’t Say No to Those Who Just say no to books.” Always remember that the print shy in our society really want your help. That, given the right book at the right moment with the right words of enticement, even hard core book refusers will put down the TV remote and pick up a good book. Non-readers are in the throes of denial, but they yearn for the printed page. Aliterates sense that reading good books exceeds other forms of human communication-even cell phones!-- as a source of information, ideas, and insights.

Approaching this challenge, you might suggest to your bookless brothers and sisters that the book everyone is talking about, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” is Really Good. You must be certain that your praise for the book shouts, but the content of the praise is something bland such as “good,” or “real good,” or “really, really good.” This is the way movies are trumpeted.

Do not describe the book as “interesting.”

“Interesting” can be interpreted as a code word for “long,” or “filled with big words.” If the particular non-reader you are encouraging to rejoin the community of readers has a penchant for taking things personally, they might take the “interesting” ploy and turn it into your saying something like, “I know more than you do about long books filled with big words.” So, be careful. These are your friends, neighbors, and co-workers and you probably, at least on their good days, hope they remain so.

Along the same lines, it’s probably not a good idea to ask the innocent question: “What have you read lately?” As mentioned above, the last sustained assaults by many non-readers on a page of print may have taken place in a physician’s office. You cannot expect a reader who is not a reader to be comfortable responding to your query. After all, what is there to say about that article, “Botox for the Brain,” perused in the pages of a two-month old magazine on that last visit to the podiatrist?

Pointing out details from the book you are supporting can be a good strategy. From “Snow Falling on Cedars,” you might emphasize the World War II tie-in without being too specific. Everyone knows there was a World War II and that it was “good.” So, at least until they read and think about the book, you’re on safe ground. You might also note the love story in the book. But don’t wander too far. Don’t get lost in all of that Ishmael-Hatsue in the hollow tree business-you’re approaching the dangerous ground of “interesting” if you go there. And if your non-reading friend is a traveler, perhaps you can catch her interest by mentioning the setting of the novel, a beautiful island in the northwest.

Be forewarned that there are connections in “Snow Falling” one needs to use with care. For the outdoorsman with an outboard, be lavish about the fishing angle in the story. And for those who have been inspired to think about changing careers by the recent spate of forensic science TV drama, lay on the ghoulish details about the autopsy. But handle these special tastes with care. The landlubber who refuses to eat at Red Lobster can be turned off by Charlie Tuna details. And reality TV’s unimaginative, gross-out, endeavors will not prepare some for Guterson’s one thousand or so well researched words on the skinning of Carl Heine.

I’ve emphasized concerned subtlety and nurturing tact as the order of the day. This is daunting work, but as you strive to crack through to the reader within the non-reader, keep saying to yourself, “Scientists have not found a gene for reading resistance. Readers without books are made, not born.” And, if it helps, “This is Vigo County not Great Britain.”

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