‘Reading is Becoming a Minority Pursuit’, warns Ruth Rendell

'The Reader' by Flagonard So said crime author, Ruth Rendell, on Radio 4’s programme Front Row.  According to reports in the Daily Telegraph today, she has had a ‘dawning realisation’  that reading for pleasure is no longer an ‘everyday pastime for most people’.  Sadly, she’s all too right.

I remember almost every passenger having a book when I commuted to London during the late 1970s and early 1980s;  the normal thing was that you started with your newspaper (then left it in your seat for someone else coming after you) and, when that ran out, you moved on to your paperback.  I made my way through all of Dickens’ novels on trains between my various homes in Surrey and my jobs in central London and in Kingston-upon-Thames; then I mopped up what I hadn’t read of the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Anthony Trolloppe.  Oh yes, Dear Reader, I was a sucker for the Victorians and still am.  During ‘The Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79, waiting on cold platforms for delayed and cancelled trains, watching the rubbish piling up in the streets, I followed the fortunes of Jo, the street-sweeper, in ‘Bleak House’.  When I left work to have children, I read George Eliot’s ‘Romula’ at home on top of my bump, and Dorothy Sayers’ ‘Gaudy Night’ in the ante-natal ward on the evening before my daughter was born.  This is what we all did, although I do believe that commuters read more than other demographics.

So what went wrong?  If you get on to a train now, you will see passengers bent over tablets.  Although a minority will be using Kindles and other e-readers, everyone else will be  using social networks, playing computer games and watching YouTube videos.  In the 1960s, the Older Generation predicted that people would stop reading because they now had the Gogglebox, and maybe that did happen to a small extent, although, in my experience, the real ‘square eyes’ were those who would never read for pleasure anyway.   There was stigma attached to watching too much television.  Those who thought of themselves as  ‘cultured’ made a point of not owning a TV – like my uncle, who had to give in when he realised that my cousins were gaining a reputation for calling in on friends and neighbours just at the time when ‘Top of the Pops’ or ‘The Man From UNCLE’ was starting.  Owning an iPad or other tablet, however, is not regarded as ‘uncultured’.   In fact, even intellectuals have a sneaking respect for those geeks who play Black Ops all day.

The (mainly male) students I teach would never be seen with a paperback or an e-reader.  (We have a girl student who reads all the time, before class and even during, and, no, Dear Reader, I’ve never told her off for doing it.  I haven’t the heart to do so.)  If you give a certain sort of student a worksheet about how to use a software application, he will tell you he can’t read.  He will snigger as he says it, because real men don’t read.  Indeed, if he were required to enter the library, there would be a distinct danger that his balls would drop off.  Other kids just blag their way through.  One very gentle boy (not macho at all) told me, just before Christmas, that, for three years, he has looked only at the screen dumps on my worksheets and used them to work out what he should do.  I have to confess that, mostly, this particular guy gets it right.  In the IT profession, tutorials in how to use applications are, more and more, being given in video form, mostly on YouTube.   I find these almost impossible to follow, but younger people seem to prefer  them.  Are we losing the art of reading?  Are we expecting everything to be visual and pictorial?  I think we are.

So where does this leave us poor writers?  Not in a good place.  There is only one place for a Julian Fellowes.

If we had the inclination, we could design computer games.  This is probably the career path with the best prospects.  Apart from the most basic sort, computer games do include a storyline and (I’m told – by my students) that it’s getting involved in this storyline that is addictive.  So turn your skills to fantasy, sci fi, death and destruction.

Seeing as computer games have the greatest appeal for men, we could write for women – which is much easier if you are a woman, obviously.  Be aware, though, that the older end of the market – womags – are unfortunately in decline.  I understand (but don’t know because I’ve never had a womag hit) that they pay well, but getting a story accepted is a bit like winning the FA Cup.  Chicklit (written for younger women) seems to be on the up and up – this means you would have to write about sex.  Ugh.  Squirm.

You could write novels for older people (mostly women) who do read fiction.  Historical, crime AND historical crime are all great female favourites.  Older men seem to have a preference for non-fiction, so we might turn our attention to Books about The War, biography, and sporting heroes.

Did you see the three episodes of ‘Death Comes To Pemberley’ over Christmas?   I normally hate adaptations of anything but in this case beloved daughter and I agreed that the telly version was better than the book.  When I reviewed the written version this time last year, I think I commented that P D James got into Lydia Wickham (nee Bennett) better even than Jane Austen did and this was certainly reflected in the TV version.  Also the screenplay writers seemed to have included more of a storyline, and therefore more drama.

Dear Reader, you are clearly a rarity.  Happy New Year to you.  Hope you were given some nice books for Christmas and that you have read them already.  Let’s prove Ruth Rendell wrong, shall we?  (I’m sure she’d love that.)  And happy writing, to all my writing friends.

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4 thoughts on “‘Reading is Becoming a Minority Pursuit’, warns Ruth Rendell

  1. Sadly I think it’s true that less people read now than they used to. You’d think the recession would encourage people to read more as it’s cheap entertainment/escapism especially if you borrow books from the library, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.

  2. I agree. It is cheap… assuming, of course, that your local Council hasn’t closed your nearest public library. The problem is that reading involves doing some of the work yourself – conjuring up in your head what the characters look like, what the place they’re in looks like, sounds like, feels and smells like. The author can only go so far with these things. YouTube does the sight and sound for you.

  3. It’s a very sad state of affairs and the same is apparently true of writing… people are so preoccupied with typing on to a tablet or pc that they are losing the ability to put pen to paper. I think there should be a campaign to bring about the return of good penmanship, before the art is lost altogether.

    1. Definitely the same with writing. Most of my students, including the Level 3s (A level equivalent), can’t get a sentence together, and their spelling errors are pathetic!

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