The rap on reading: TV, Internet aren't only culprits

Recent findings by the National Endowment for the Arts on America's literary tastes suggest that fewer than 47 percent of us read for pleasure.

The pundits and academics wasted no time weighing in on the reasons for this decline: TV - reality shows in particular - videogames, movies, the Internet, standardized testing, the short attention span of Americans, and a national contempt for intellectual pursuits from the president on down.

Publishers and writers blamed the media for caring too little about literature, for assigning so few pages to book reviews, for turning more than half the population into culturally bankrupt yobs.

All these may well point to something about the decline in reading, but surely publishers and writers need to examine their own practices in the making and marketing of literature.

Publishers litter the marketplace with too many books of questionable literary quality - 10,000 new fiction and 165,000 nonfiction titles were released last year - cheerfully ignoring the fact that even the most motivated reader may be hard-pressed to finish more than a book a week. They circulate expensive press kits and review copies of books to Oprah Winfrey (God love her), and every journalist who happens to be breathing, in the hope of garnering positive (free) reviews for their authors.

Book reviewers who take the bait then all too frequently proceed to reveal so much of the plot that there is little incentive to buy the book.

And writers - too aware that their books must sell in the first three weeks or end up on the remaindered table - are obliged to focus on promoting their books rather than engaging in literary conversations. Authors almost never discuss their books in the context of the family of books that precede their own, or reference the work of other writers and the classics that inspire them, or other aspects their reading lives.

This is a pity, because good writers are unusually passionate and eloquent about books.

Is it fair to criticize the American public for its failure to read, when publishers and writers do so little to promote reading, depending instead on Ms. Winfrey's tastes, the media's goodwill, and underfunded public libraries to do the work for them free of charge? [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly referred to the American public's failure to promote reading, instead of its failure to read.]

In Britain, which publishes a staggering 100,000 books each year, the promotion of books and the advocacy of reading are vocational responsibilities assumed by charitable trusts established by publishers.

In the early 1980s, one such trust, the Book Marketing Council, launched a campaign called, "The Best of British Writers," to promote reading and increase book sales.

In 1983, Granta began its "Best of Young British Novelists" list. An annual compilation of a jury of publishers, writers, and book reviewers, it generates "Oscar"-type buzz for writers and their novels, creating public interest in buying and reading the selected authors.

That first year, the list included Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Shiva Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie. In recent years, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, DBC Pierre, and Yann Martel were promoted, in advance of their books, in similar fashion.

Booktrust, another foundation in London, was created in the 1970s to promote reading in Britain. It has many projects going on throughout the year to encourage reading, from books for babies, to teen book clubs, to surveys of world literature.

In February, Booktrust launched a "Reading London" campaign to promote interest in fiction set in the British capital. Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith, and other distinguished writers kicked off the event at Canary Wharf with readings and book signings.

Booktrust and other foundations also heavily promote literary awards, so everyone in the country is aware of the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and the Commonwealth Prize shortlists. There's even betting on who will win. Compare this with the coverage given the Pulitzer. How many Americans know who won for fiction most recently? (Edward P. Jones for "The Known World.")

Publishers and writers can blame TV, the Internet, and the media all they want, but the problem lies squarely with them.

They need to activate their marketing and literary imagination in order to promote their books, as well as the act of reading, in new ways. They, more than anyone, need to be organized keepers of the reading flame.

Gail Vida Hamburg, a former Londoner, teaches at Roosevelt University, Chicago. Her political novel, "The Edge of the World," will be published in 2005.

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