Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Reading to love or to learn

Last night at my writing class we began talking about how literature has changed in the last few decades...specifically the short story. Someone said that stories used to be written for a general audience--people would bring a magazine on an airplane and read the story (ies) within. Our instructor said that people used to be able to live from publishing 6 stories a year, at which we all chuckled, and also said that people who go into bookstores (average people) get so overwhelmed that they immediately go to what they've heard of--Dan Brown, Stephen King, whoever the bookstore employees recommend--not because the books are GOOD, but because it's safe.

This combined with a writing prompt I recently gave my seniors on why they think reading has declined for students in the last few years led me to question my own reading habits.

When I was in elementary school and junior high, my parents worked in the mall in my town and sometimes, especially Thursday nights when they worked late, I would be there with them. B. Dalton was down the hall, and I would go and sit in the young adult section and read all evening long. I had one rack of shelves to choose from, and I was very content with what I found there. I never batted an eye at the rest of the store. Now, at Barnes and Noble, the young adult section is as large as the B. Dalton in my town was, and it's one of the smaller sections in the store. I've struggled with how to make my students enjoy reading, and I have to admit that I understand their confusion when they try to pick out a book. It isn't that they don't want to read, but if you're not a reader, how do you know where to begin? How do you know what you like? If I wasn't a reader and I picked up 10-15 books and didn't like ANY of them, which is entirely possible, why would I want to continue? Wouldn't it just be easier to say "I hate reading" and go watch TV--where I know there are things I like?

So, why do I read now? I went through a transition in high school and college where I changed from reading for pleasure to reading for education purposes. Because I was an English major I was reading all the time, but always books for class. I enjoyed them, but when I graduated I stayed in the habit of reading to learn. It wasn't until I started writing short stories that I figured out that I could (and should) read for pleasure. That was when I discovered Stephen King and, well, we all know how much I love him.

As far as writing, though, I will admit that I now read short stories to learn from them, the craft, characters, how they got published. I wonder how many people read short stories for pleasure and how many of them are just like me, reading to learn how to write. The demise of short stories could come because of a lack of reading out of love, reading to enjoy, if everyone that reads stories is only reading to learn from other writers who are also reading to learn from other writers, on and on.

Interesting to ponder.

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