Opening the Book
January is the time of year we make resolutions – go on a diet, take more exercise, go out more, and yes, I’ve seen plenty people on Twitter and elsewhere vowing to read more. Reading is often associated with this sort of self-improvement.
I do think reading can be good for you – I have learned loads from what I’ve read, and books have got me through tough times, not to mention the way they simply pass the hours when you’re stuck waiting somewhere (airports and dentists come to mind for me in the last year.) But is this really what motivates people to read?
Telling people reading is good for them, and reading more is even better, is not always the best way to engage their interest and enthusiasm. I don’t choose a book because it’s good for me, I choose it because it tempts me, I think it’s going to give me something back for the investment of time I’ll make in it. I’m interested in what I am going to get out of it.
Persuading people to make space for reading in their lives means connecting to their motivations for picking up a book – to relax, to be gripped, to be taken out of yourself, to identify with, to explore. These satisfactions can be found across a wide range of types of book. You will find if you take this approach that your book promotions and displays get a fresh energy as you can mix books which are found in separate sections of the library and make intriguing connections.
I’ve spent a large part of my life asking people what they get out of reading and I’m always finding new and surprising answers. People read for a whole host of reasons – for escape and for challenge, to be private and to share someone else’s experience. Just as we have different clothes for different occasions, we have books for different purposes. I have my keep-fit reading and my slob-about-the-house-without-getting-dressed reading. When you see someone wearing a specific outfit you never think those are the only clothes they possess – you know there are alternatives in the closet for special occasions, for relaxation, for outdoors, for hot weather.
It’s exactly the same with reading. But how often do we make a judgment when we see someone with a specific book – there goes a romance reader, he’s obviously a fantasy fan, she’s clearly trying to convey she’s an intellectual – as if they never read anything else.
Worse still if it’s a judgment on the person as well as the book as this becomes simple prejudice - romance readers have no sex life; fantasy readers are nerds; the only motivation to read a challenging novel is to impress other people …. I interviewed Terry Pratchett about reading way back in 1991, at a time when he was fighting for genre writing to be recognised, and I always remember him telling me that his biggest fan base was not male adolescents with acne but middle-aged women. That won’t surprise anyone who has read him but it challenges the general stereotype.
Readers’ advisory librarians know their role is to help and not to judge but libraries still get themselves caught up in debates about highbrow and lowbrow, literary and popular. I find the way to cut through these is to use a reader-centred definition of quality. It's not the quality of the book that matters, it's the quality of the reading experience. This helps to explain how it is quite possible to have a poor reading experience with a great book - most of us have experienced this at school or later in life. This doesn't mean that generations of readers have been wrong about the book and you're the first person to see through it. Nor does it mean that there is something wrong with you or that you are simply not up to it. All it means is that you and the book weren't right for each other at that time, something prevented the book from speaking to you.
Conversely, it is possible to have a deep and satisfying reading experience with a book which is actually quite light, which may not be a book of all time, but which just happens to speak to you at a particular point in your life. A life-changing book might not be a great book. Your reactions to a book are shaped as much by who you are as by what the book is - your personal history, preferences and the mood you happen to be in at the time you are reading.
This column is illustrated with some of the fantastic images we have used to promote reading in this way in the UK. Thanks to our new partnership with Brodart, these ideas are being brought to the USA and Canada. If you’d like to debate the ideas, or make suggestions for what you think will work best in your libraries, please email me on email@example.com.