Reading At Risk? Don’t Believe Everything You Read – A Talk with Kevin Smokler

May 25th, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Cover for Bookmark Now by Kevin SmoklerTo hear it told, you’d think the world was ending. Nobody reads, nobody thinks. Yet there’s lots of evidence that plenty of reading and thinking is happening. In his new essay collection Bookmark Now, Kevin Smokler addresss the issue of reading and writing in these supposedley unreaderly times. As the opening piece, where a writer looks back at the irony, missed at the time, of his time as a soldier, reading Hemingway in Africa, indicates, there is far more reading happening than the watchful eyes of statisticians realize.

Below, Kevin talks about his project and issues a call to arms to the publishing industry. We have another set of questions on tap for Kevin later today (barring the technology issues plaguing us) and a few thoughts about the stories in the books as well.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Bookmark Now?

A: From 1999 – 2003, I ran an online community for book lovers aimed at bibliophiles in their 20’s and 30’s. When I mentioned it to members of my parents’ generation, they usually responded with “Does your generation read? I mean, at all?” The question shocked me because not only did my friends and I all read like fiends, but everywhere I looked (from “This American Life” on the radio to McSweeney’s in print to the explosion of interest in poetry) were people my age writing and reading like maniacs. So I wanted to create a collection of essays that explained why writers of my generation had chosen literature when more lucrative artistic option were available and what that decision said about our interest in reading and the culture of books today.

In the introduction, I write about the NEA’s “Reading at Risk” report which, yet again, argued that people my age and younger don’t read because we’ve been lured away and drugged by television, video games and the Internet. I turned the accusation around and said that perhaps we’re doing a lousy job of making books as sexy as those other options and that we have the opportunity to turn the fortunes of of publishing and books around with a little imagination and lot of hard work. Anger is a fabulous motivator.

Q: The NEA’s “Reading and Risk” report states that interest in reading is plummeting across all demographic groups, but particularly yours. If any of this is true, doesn’t it call the whole premise of your book into question?

A: Paul Collins, who contributed an essay to Bookmark Now, blasted a hole through the “Reading at Risk” report better than I ever could in an article for The Village Voice. According to Paul, nightmarish predictions about our culture’s declining reading habits surface every few decades, with a new crew of boogeymen to blame. At the turn of the century, some newspapers were predicting that the automobile would deal the death blow to reading and we saw how that turned out.

I’m no statistician, so I gave the report’s findings the benefit of the doubt. However, the resultant huffing from the media about how schools are failing our young people and about how video games and the Internet are murdering literacy is just another way of saying “those damn kids and their rock n’ roll nonsense! Get off my lawn” and for the publishing industry to blame everyone but themselves. I recommend attention the National Youth Poetry Slam Finals or the next time David Sedaris or Neal Pollack does an event in your town. Or catch Bookmark Now on tour this summer. You’ll see how ridiculous this “young people don’t read” attitude is.

Q: How can books compete with movies, music and video games?

A: Obviously not on pixels and speed, but we can do a helluva a lot to make books seem more like fun and less like work, more like chocolate instead of broccoli. For publishers, the era of the reclusive or camera-shy author is over. Authors needs to be in the public eye as much as musicians, filmmakers and actors. That means every author should have a website, mailing list, and should make appearances, funded or otherwise, in support of their books. Right now, if you’re the world’s biggest Alice Walker fan, there’s nowhere to put your enthusiasm other than once every three years when a new book of hers comes out. Where’s the Alice Walker fan club where you can commune with others that share your joy?

For authors, it means increased communication with your readers. That means responding to emails, doing events other than in bookstores, blogging perhaps, being a flesh-and-blood human being instead of an artist behind glass. And it means thinking of book marketing beyond reviews in the New York Times and readings at bookstores. It’s clear that those stratetgies are only working for a very small percentage of books.

For readers and lit lovers: Talk talk talk. Make books part of everyday conversation. When was the last time you talked about what you were reading around the water cooler with the same enthusiasm you give to movies or the last episode of “Lost”?

Q: How do we encourage reading in children and teenagers?

A: All too often, books are drenched in the word “should”. We “should” read Shakespeare, we “should” appreciate Milton. But why? Because the teacher said so? When was the last time that worked on a sixteen-year old? Also, parents who think their kids “should” read and don’t read themselves are inexcusable. That’s like preaching to your kid about safety while driving blindfolded.

Instead, books need to be taught in conjunction with the other art forms so they seem tangible and alive instead of creaking relics of history. How can we examine Last Exit to Brooklyn independent of the anger pulsing beneath the surface of The Wild One? Or how can we read Dorothy Parker without a jazz soundtrack? From the other side, hip-hop music only makes sense when seen alongside the novels of Iceberg Slim and the work of Eldridge Cleaver. The vigilante culture that fuels videogames like “Grand Theft Auto” has its early ancestry in Crime and Punishment and Camus’s The Stranger. Way, way too often we treat books like cultural reliquarie, disconnected from the culture that created or inspired them.

Q: Is reading an activity mostly for the middle class and well-educated?

A: It needn’t be, but we’ve placed an incredibly high barrier to entry on reading. A new hardcover book costs more than a movie ticket, a used video game, a CD or DVD and, in many cities, theater tickets. It also takes several days’ worth of time to complete. Given those odds, would you dive into or back into reading as a hobby?

We need to devise what I call “The 99 Cent Solution” for books just as iTunes did for music. iTunes allows you to sample a musician at a lower risk of time and money. Perhaps we need to come up with an online store for the first chapters of books or audio downloads? Perhaps we need to develop online recommendation systems such as Netflix has done for movies and TiVo has for television? Perhaps libraries need to start making home deliveries? In other words, we need to make it much easier for readers to get hooked up with good books than it is now.

Q: How did you select the contributors for Bookmark Now?

A: I decided upfront that each author had to be a) someone whose work I had read and admired, b) someone roughly of my generation, which meant they couldn’t remember Kennedy but could remember the Ronald Reagan jellybean jokes, and c) a writer as compelling in non-fiction as they were in their novels.

Many were writers whose work I’d admired for a long time. Others were suggested to me by friends and colleagues once they found out I was putting the book together. At least one writer nominated another who later signed on.

Q: What requirements did you give them for writing their essays? Or did you just tell them to run wild and you’d edit them later?

A: 2,000 words. And don’t avoid the word “I”. I also suggested topics based on the issues I wanted the collection to address. Most of the contributions brokes these rules left, right, and center, and I think we ended up with a better book for it.

Q: Do you have a favorite essay? If so, which one?

A: Bookmark Now is the house I’ve lived in for the last 2 years and the essays are the rooms. They’re all too familiar for me to pick one over the others.

Q: Why did you elect to have your first book be anthology instead of a book you wrote yourself?

A: Because I’m a Leo, an oldest child and Jewish, which means I’m a ridiculously extroverted, social person. The idea of writing a book both excited and scared the hell out of me, mostly because I imagined 2+ years alone with it. I’ll have plenty of time for that in future books, but for the first one, I wanted a group project instead of solo mission, a “hey kids, let’s put on a book!” sort of thing.

Q: Your introduction points a real accusatory finger at the publishing industry. Is that a smart idea if you intend to get published again?

A: I wouldn’t have spent the last two years on a book that does nothing but dump on the publishing business for my own amusement. I point fingers (and offer solutions) because I love books, I love authors, and I love publishing. It’s because I love it that I want to see it stay fresh, stay relevant, and not consign itself, through lack of imagination, to the scrapheap of history. I point because I want to see it do better. I point because I care.

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