Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Jumping in the Shallow End

I grew up with books. As a child, my best friends were named Laura, and Lucy, and Anne. I used to hide in kitchen cupboards, since we didn't have a wardrobe, and imagine that I was entering another world. Even today, I treat books sort of like blankets. I snuggle with them, cuddle with them, turn to them when I want to retreat into my own world and hide.

I love political theory, I love fiction, I love literature. I love a little bit of everything, I suppose. And yet I can't help but notice such a big difference between what was written a century ago and what is written today. They used bigger words before. They used more complex sentence structure. They used semi-colons!

Why do I bring this up? I think it's because I fear that we are losing our literacy, and with that losing a great vehicle of communicating some marvelous truths about the gospel. Isn't it interesting that almost the first thing that missionaries to new tribes do is write down the language and teach people to read so that they can eventually read the Bible once it is translated? We need to read.

Yet we don't. Today in Kathleen Parker's column about the decline of book editors at major newspapers, she says this:

Total book reading is also in decline, though not at the rate of literary
reading. Between 1992 and 2002, the percentage of American adults who read any
book dropped 7 percent, while literary reading (non-work-related reading of
novels, short stories, poems or plays) dropped 14 percent, according to the NEA.

What does this mean for Canadian Christian authors, and for the bookstores that sell their wares? We need to recognize this new reality and come up with new and innovative ways to communicate our message, as I have already talked about.

But I think it means something more than this. We need to show that books have value. Rather than trying to push books, we need to show the benefits of books. Maybe this comes from encouraging more book clubs as a way to form friends and talk about deep subjects. Maybe it comes from writing more study guides, since people do seem more inclined to read a book they can study on their own or in a group. Maybe it means finding more ways to communicate with the audience so that the book is more of an interactive experience. Since what people need more and more today is community, we have to create ways where books can grow community.

At the bookstore level, I think book clubs and readings (even if they're not by the author!) is a great way to do this. For the author, I just don't think there's an alternative to communicating regularly and directly with the reader. Perhaps we can set up newsgroups on our websites where people can ask questions and get ideas from other readers? We certainly need to be sending out ezines, I think, to touch the readers. Maybe we could also use more reader surveys in our books, so that people feel as if they have ownership in the material. I think it also means speaking more and getting out there, and I know that's hard when many of us feel far more comfortable at a computer screen.

I would hate to see the computer completely take over from books. You can't take a computer in the bathtub (or at least I wouldn't recommend it), and you can't really take one to the beach, though I'm sure it's been tried. You can't flip pages on a computer. It's a totally different medium. But we can't expect readers to naturally come with us unless we offer them something they need--and that "something" can't simply be a book. It has to be a whole experience.

This is a tall order, I know. It certainly isn't fair. But I don't see much of a way around it. It's going to take all of us a lot of time. But if our goal is communicating to change lives, we have to capture the audience; we can't expect them to come to us.

I would love to live in Anne's day, but I don't. I live in my day. I hope I can adjust to our new reality, and find a way to bring people back to books, and especially to The Book. Otherwise I worry that tomorrow may be a day without books. That's not a tomorrow I would like to see. But there's no sense complaining about it. All we can do is do something about it. If any of you have more ideas, I'd love to hear them!

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