A clear and present danger

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Paula’s Post #65 — We live in the digital age. A time of ever-increasing distractions. Our iPhones, our iPads, our Fuel Bands and Fitbits, our 1000+ digital cable channels, our Netflix and Twitter and Linkedin accounts… all contribute to a world where the hours of the day are subjected to being sliced and diced like a French chef’s mirepoix, until there is nothing left but a few stray minutes here, an hour or so there.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t shake the vague sense of feeling ‘robbed’ by all these distracting influences.

I know, I know,  I can hear you all now: “It’s your own fault if you can’t turn off your phone for an hour or two – if you can’t push yourself off the couch and pick up a book instead of sitting rooted, like a gnarled old oak, transfixed by the Olympic’s Women’s Parallel Slalom Snowboarding event or the latest episode of Downton Abbey.  

We all make choices, this is true, but there is no disputing the radical changes the digital age has brought to our everyday lives.

Just 10 years ago, I actually visited libraries on a weekly basis. Visited bookstores too, almost as often, checking out with armloads of heavy books from my favourite authors. I recall vowing to purchase Sue Grafton’s alphabet offerings, in order, all the way to Z is for… but alas, faltered somewhere around P is for Peril.

P is for Peril

I was amongst the first to cheer the introduction of the eReader, the device that heralded the dawn of a new age, a utopian future where we could travel through Europe without fear of running out of books to read, or of being charged excess baggage fees when the 17 travel guides we’d squirreled away in our luggage resulted in our suitcases topping out the scales at somewhere north of 50 pounds.

Up until the last decade, for better or worse, actual physical ‘books’ were an omnipresent part of our everyday lives.

Now, with rare exceptions, most of my books are downloaded to my iPad. I still like to buy real hard copies of the reference books that I used in my business and  I think I will always want to buy hard copies of ‘writing’ books, for these I like to index with little stickies and dog ear the pages to mark passages that resonate with a particular sage piece of advice. But now, my purchase of ‘real’ books, as far as fiction is concerned, is more often than not confined to purchasing that special first edition of a favourite author’s book, or better yet, the hot off the presses launch of a writing colleagues debut novel.

To me, this is disturbing.

How could so much have changed in so short a time?

Not everyone is like me. I’m sure many of you are still acquiring books, whether from a genuine preference for the touch and feel and smell of ‘real books’ or from an altruistic need to ‘save’ a dying art form.

When I packed up my house to move last summer, I could have built eight foot walls from the shelves full of books we’d accumulated over the years. Some purchased, some inherited, but either way far too many to move yet again.

In case you think otherwise, there isn’t a huge market for used books – they’re difficult to even give away. But my 5writer colleague Joe was quick to step in, offering to ‘shelter’ several fine books in his collection.

Indeed, I’ve started to think maybe we need to develop ‘book rescue’ organizations, something akin to ‘pet rescue’. Noble undertakings where you offer to provide a home, temporary or otherwise, to save old books from being euthanized at the dump.

But think about it for a minute. Even if you do rescue these books, how many of these books are you actually going to read? Are we ‘book readers’ the last of a dying breed?

What about young people? Are the majority actually reading actual books these days? I know the Hunger Games trilogy and the Divergent series have captivated a certain segment of teen and young adult readers, in much the same way as J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series managed a decade before with somewhat younger readers, but is this an isolated trend?

My sister-in-law Eleanor is visiting this week; a retired high school teacher, she is a life-long reader who still works with young people, tutoring ESL students. Eleanor is a true reader, having read every day of her life, from the time she learned to read. She even admits to feeling upset if she doesn’t read a little bit everyday, if only for ten minutes, before she falls asleep.

But Eleanor readily agrees that she finds it disturbing when she has to almost ‘force’ some of her young adult students to read books, even for pleasure.

I’m beginning to wonder if we may have done our children a disservice, herding them into English class and forcing them to dissect books like specimens in a biology lab. Dictating that a novel must be ripped to shreds until there is nothing left to love. Lost is pacing, plot and most egregious of all, the suspension of disbelief. Who wouldn’t rather play video games?

Perhaps what we need is a revolution in reading. Since it debuted in 1996, Oprah’s Book Club has helped to keep reading fun, social and interactive. She’s even got lists to help introduce kids to the joy of reading.

Yet even here, some have criticized the pop culture, mass appeal of the books Oprah has championed over the years: Scott Stossel, an editor at The Atlantic, wrote:

“There is something so relentlessly therapeutic, so consciously self-improving about the book club that it seems antithetical to discussions of serious literature. Literature should disturb the mind and derange the senses; it can be palliative, but it is not meant to be the easy, soothing one that Oprah would make it.”[1]

Seriously? What a snob!

I don’t know about you, but I want to fall in love with books again. Yesterday, a beautiful 80 degree blue sky day in the California desert, I launched my floatie raft and drifted about my pool. Within minutes though, I was antsy. I knew something was wrong. I didn’t have a book I could take into the pool. Two sat on my bedside table: The Spellman Files, a hardcopy, first edition mystery by Edgar nominated author Lisa Lutz bearing a personal inscription to the friend in my Bocce league who’d lent me this delightful debut novel.

No, no, no, no – definitely not taking that one in the pool.

Ditto for the second book on my night table, The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, another hard copy first edition debut novel that is winning rave reviews. This book a Christmas present from my cousin Mark.

Not pool fodder, no, no, no.

I finally settled on launching with NumbersRachel Ward’s debut YA psycho thriller about a disaffected teen with an unusual affliction, the ability to see ‘numbers’ attached to people, the numbers the dates of each person’s death. I’d purchased the book when researching the genre for my own 5writers YA novel, but never did more than read a few of the early chapters.

Yesterday, floating on my raft under an azure sky, I lost myself in this little paperback book, if only for an hour or so before yet another social engagement. But that hour was enough to rediscover the joy of reading. I didn’t pick it up at the end of the day, when I was exhausted and destined to fall asleep in a mere 10 minutes or so. No, for once I found the time to read in the middle of the day, my iPhone and iPad safely ashore, I floated adrift and unplugged from the normal distractions of everyday life.

I can’t say it is the best book I’ve ever read, but that is not the point. Yesterday, I cherished the simple pleasure of reading just for fun.

The Atlantic’s Mr. Stossel would no doubt cringe at my choice of reading material, decrying the author’s thin characterizations, familiar themes and simple prose.

Who cares!

If we do not rediscover the joy of reading for pleasure, I fear there is a clear and present danger lying just ahead.

I fear we will have no one to write for.

For you followers of our 5writers blog, I suspect I’m preaching to the converted. If you’re following a blog about writing, your either a reader, a writer, or both. Most likely your spouses and kids are too.

But what about the rest of the people in your little world? Do you know a boy or girl who never reads? A young adult who has yet to discover ‘the joy of reading’? A spouse who may have slipped from grace, distracted by the easy ability to watch six episodes of Breaking Bad in a single evening instead of picking up a book? Even amongst yourselves, are you finding you have too many books you are ‘supposed’ to read, with little time to just read for fun?

If so, I’m suggesting a small experiment. Pick up a book you’d never otherwise read. Read it for fun as quickly as possible. Try not to analyze it. Try just to enjoy it.

When you are done. Give it to someone else.

Bonus points for anyone who can coax a young person, under thirty, into reading a book, just for fun.

Paula’s Post #65.5 — A quick update: Alas, I did not quite manage to get this post posted by Tuesday, midnight, the deadline for my once a week blog offering. As in ‘if this is Tuesday, it must be Paula’s 5writer blog day’.

As we 5writers all know only to well, the road to you-know-where is paved with good intentions. I’d smugly written this post Monday morning, leaving it to add only the insertion of a number of links to author pages, etc. I figured I had plenty of time to do that Tuesday morning before my flight from California to Canada.

I figured wrong.

Remember, suspense in fiction is created by unexpected events. Events like the misplacement of keys before an international flight. The only set of keys that would let us into our rented postage stamp apartment in Vancouver. The keys we were sure we’d taken down to California, but were no where to be found, despite a massive key hunt. The keys that made us an hour late for our flight (good thing the flight was an hour late too).

But as Will Shakespeare famously wrote: ‘Alls Well that Ends Well’: a good friend picked us up to the airport in Vancouver, stayed with us all afternoon and hung out at Starbucks with us until we managed to track down our property manager and an extra key to our apartment. Our kind friend then joined us for dinner and drove us both to dinner and home, after we realized we still didn’t have a working ‘fob’ that would get us into our locked garage where our car is parked.

The fob is coming at 9 am this morning and we’ll be back in action, even if it looks like I’ll end up with a late start for my journey up the coast to check on our renovations. No bumpy journey is without a silver lining. For me, that was being reminded of the true value of a good friend.

Thanks, Colleen!

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4 thoughts on “A clear and present danger

  1. When we first started travelling I always had a book on the go. Then I started blogging. I think I’ve read maybe half a dozen books (on my laptop) in the past year or so 😦
    I read a lot of blogs 🙂

  2. Blogging does eat into the reading and writing time. It’s one reason I’ve limited my reading of fellow bloggers’ posts to Mondays and Thursdays. I still love “real” books, but yes, they are a drain on the energy when moving has become a fairly common event in my life. My husband has actually gotten good again about going to the library for his reading. Those books don’t take up too much space in the house!

  3. Fabulous post Paula – I think everything you said about books is bang on (unfortunately). And I am guilty-as-charged with respect to my own reading habits. I have to confess to rushing through many of my book club’s selections at the 11th hour, and I have a huge stack of “must reads” that I haven’t gotten to yet. I’m not really aware of spending an inordinate amount of time on technology, but … if I haven’t had enough time to read, and haven’t had enough time to write (a glaring truth that my 5writer colleagues know too well), and haven’t had enough time to [fill in the blank with almost any worthwhile activity you can think of, from cooking to exercise to cleaning to socializing] then, truly, where the hell has my time been going? Or is time just running faster than it used to? Or am I running slower? (My suspicion).

  4. Pingback: Survival guide for writers | 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months

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