Some Notes On Reading



I stumbled across the Amazon bestsellers list last week and checked out the most popular subjects in the Amazon table; rebel girls, dieting, Mother’s Day, Fearne Cotton, big knickers, more mums. We all need to relax, so I’m not criticising the reading quality (although it does set a pretty low bar), but what struck me was that male-oriented fiction is noticeable by its almost total absence.

A quick, unscientific straw-poll produced 5 female readers (voracious), 3 (regular), 2 (occasional) – male readers (none). Could it be that reading is being bred out of the male psyche?

The elephant in the room, of course, is the iPad. In the lives of many couples I know there is now a third person who sits, like the daemons in the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, at the right hand of the male, advising and offering content. Statistically males are far more prone to playing games, and they love to make lists, something the iPad taps into very heavily.

My female friends mostly read constantly. Few read ‘literature’ as such, but most tackle hefty New York Times bestsellers about multi-generational families facing crises.

I don’t see children reading in public and loved the story of the little boy taken into a bookshop by his mother who looked at her and said, ‘Mum, have we gone back into the past?’

In the UK, a largely indoor society, children seem to watch more TV than anywhere I’ve been. The danger is regarding reading as something you have to do, the vegetables to the sweets of TV, something unpleasant but necessary for health.

Readability is not a crime; I have no problem at all with Dan Brown, who is at least clear in his intentions, but I fear that for many their only book will be Paula Hawkins’ ‘The Girl on the Train’, which is so linguistically boring, confusingly constructed and murkily written that I failed to realise there were three ‘girls’ involved either in the book or the film.

Meanwhile, Ian McGuire’s astounding ‘The North Water’, about a whaling ship, is more readable while being more erudite and much more thrilling. But does that make it a ‘male’ read because there are – of necessity – no ‘girls’ in it? Despite critical plaudits its Amazon ratings are mixed, with many female readers complaining about bad language. In a book set on a 19th century whaling ship!

Normally a friend would have recommended it to me, but this time I had to stumble across a quote from a fellow author to point it out.

The last major UK reading survey found that England suffers from a cultural divide, with poor adults much less likely to read books than their richer neighbours.

A survey of 1,500 adults found that more than one in four (27%) of adults from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds said they never read books themselves, compared with just 13% of those from the richest socio-economic backgrounds.

More than 6 in 10 (62%) of those from the richest backgrounds said they read daily or weekly, compared with four in 10 (42%) of those from the poorest.

Adults from the highest socio-economic background own twice as many books on average as those from the lowest backgrounds (376 compared with 156). 83% of adults from the richest group feel that reading improves their lives, compared with 72% of those from the poorest group.

Here’s the interesting part; significant minorities of adults have negative attitudes towards reading, with nearly a fifth (18%) saying they would never read a book and 7 in 10 (71%) saying they never read e-books.

More than one-third (36%) say they often start a book but get bored, while a similar proportion (35%) say they ‘can’t find time to read’. Almost half said they prefer watching TV to reading.

More than one-quarter of those surveyed said they would rather surf the internet and use social media than read – rising to 56% among 18- to 30-year-olds. Around three-quarters (76%) of all adults questioned said reading improves their lives, while almost half (49%) enjoy reading books very much.

The study concludes that people who read regularly are more satisfied with life, happier and more likely to feel their life is worthwhile.

Ian McGuire -The North Water

16 comments on “Some Notes On Reading”

  1. Stacy says:

    Stacy here from goodreads. Lovely article Christopher! I do think we readers are a dying breed. People don’t seem to have the attention span necessary anymore to read… they are addicted the the visually stimulating media, and reading is work for their brains– they would actually have to think and not just sit there and vegetate, letting their brains atrophy. I am a hetrosexual female, and like to read books about men or women, in other words, about people, period.I think this over emphasis on one gender over another in our culture has gotten to the point of sickening. Some people are so overboard. I embrace all of the human race. There is good in most people, regardless of their gender, and I enjoy reading about my fellow inhabitants of this planet. People, especially women it seems, really need to lighten up. Have a wonderful day! : )

  2. Wayne#1 says:

    I was once criticised for wanting to stop at a book shop while out shopping with friends (all male shopping expedition) Its an odd thing that out of six people shopping only myself found a book shop of any interest. I tried to explain about books to my friends later and why I found books so much more interesting than watching the television, well that went down like a lead balloon I can tell you. I ended up being called a sissy for liking books.

    Well it didn’t put me off but I can see why some boys and men would not be readers if they too suffer such a reaction.

  3. John Howard says:

    As a kid there weren’t a large selection of books in the book case but one thing that we did do as a family was to go to the library on a weekly/fortnightly basis. I think i’m lucky as i like being taken into another world by a book and so have never stopped reading since then.
    For me as a child, there was either minimal TV or reading to entertain. I wonder how much influence on the figures the availability of the sheer number and different types of entertainment on phones and tablets may have taken over from reading because, for the majority of these, the amount of effort needed for a return is minimal in comparison to reading.

  4. Brooke says:

    Is this example of Mr. Fowler on a reduced 5 posts a week schedule? I am in awe of your energy.
    Thank you for pointing out “North Water.” My kind of read.

  5. SteveB says:

    It (The North Water) is a good book all right, but a pet hate of mine is the narrative present without any obvious need for it…

  6. Roger says:

    The deliberate destruction of the public library system is going to make it even less likely that poor adults who are in the habit of reading will be able to find particular books and that poor children will be less likely to get in the habit of reading at all. The general policies of the government make it likely there are going to be a lot more poor people. On the other hand, if people just want “something to read”, and are curious or indifferent enough to try odd books, at the moment, at least, many charity shops provide interesting recently-published books at only £1 or £2. It’s a matter of pot luck, but they are there. However, I think the people they appeal to – like me – are probably already voracious readers anyway.
    It is curious that there seems to be a general and possibly increasing hostility to books and reading. I sometimes think it’s because of all human activities, it is probably the one which least fits in with the demands and requirements of contemporary society.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    I agree with your every word Roger. The closure of libraries by all 3 main parties when in government is a typical example of knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

    Mr F describes some v interesting points. Most of them worrying. I don’t understand this “masculine” fear of books. I think it’s a symptom of lack of self-esteem. A “real man” doesn’t give a toss about what anyone thinks of him.

    I forgot who said “I can’t live without books” (despite having a mug bearing that legend) but that is my partner and I. We had to buy a bigger house a while back because of our ever increasing library. To us a home is not a home unless it is festooned with books.

    I gave up watching TV some while ago-I read instead.

    Talking of which Chris, I have just finished “Strange Tide” and loved it. I hope the owners of “The Boot” don’t read your blogs as you were a little unkind about it. It is depressing inside though! The one and only time I have played Pool was in there a few years ago. I was hammered.

    After reading the blog about “Spanky” I’m going to download it.

  8. Ian Mason says:

    “The last major UK reading survey found that England suffers from a cultural divide, with poor adults much less likely to read books than their richer neighbours.”

    Isn’t that the cart before the horse? The implied cause and effect is, surely the opposite of what logic would suggest. That is, that reading leads to prosperity rather than prosperity leading to reading.

  9. Jo W says:

    If that ‘The Boot’ is the hostelry in the St.Pancras area that I have visited,then I would like to point out that there is a beautiful bright pink exercise bike n the ‘ladies’. When I asked the barmaid why, she answered, why not. Perfect! 😉

  10. Debra Matheney says:

    “I cannot live without books” is a quote of Thomas Jefferson. I cannot imagine a world without books and, fortunately, can afford to buy as many as I like. There is a movement in the US to privatize libraries and get rid of trained librarians.Our current president does not read! Fran Lebowitz, a New York wit, was recently asked what book she would have the president read. She responded, “It depends on who is reading it to him.”

    Happy reading everyone. I am reading Gerald Durrell and “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries”. Both have me laughing out loud in places.

  11. Lynchie says:

    I’m not surprised to read of “female readers complaining about bad language. In a book set on a 19th century whaling ship”. In a similar vein, I’ve lost count of the comments (from males and females) I’ve read on goodreads about there being too much violence in crime novels!

  12. John Griffin says:

    My kids and grandkids have been brought up in a world of books. Moving house for my daughter was finding room in a small terrace for all her books, and she has a full-on health service job as a senior nurse. Yet we have kids coming round with the grandkids who at 7 can hardly read, one of them being helped by our 5 year old lad a couple of weeks ago. Neither of the girl’s parents read, her father doesn’t believe in the value of education, there are very few books in the house……..I won’t even go on the politics side……
    When I was a lad, the miners at WEA used to have lecturers as speakers, English Lit, politics, philosophy, and used to give them a run for their money. Books were a passport to new lands. All gone now in our new cultural wasteland.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    We have a version of the Mechanics Institute in Vancouver called the Vancouver Institute. It was founded about 80 years ago to connect town and gown. The speakers are a variety of local experts and visiting specialists in each of the faculty areas. We’ve had musicians, writers (Margaret Atwood twice) and various scientists as well as a New Zealand parliamentarian who wondered that we didn’t have anything better to do on a Saturday than hear him talk on New Zealand taxation. There were about 700 people in attendance that night. It’s a 3/4 hour drive for us and we’ve not gone for a while.
    School librarians are so often women and we’ve been pushing for strong female characters to the detriment of strong male ones. I think there is a wish to calm down action when boys want it – now! – and in straight forward language. Biff! Pow! Bam! Nevertheless, fight for the libraries and fight hard, because that is where children learn the joy of reading. Let them find their own books there, too. It’s difficult to urge a change of genre without criticising what they have been choosing.
    I agree with Ian Mason in the comment about reading leading to satisfaction and success rather than the other way about. Reading families remain reading families. We had to mail away for library books when I was in my teens but that whole area has a series of public libraries now. My son was taken to the library every week from the time he could sit up and the house has always had huge piles of books – he still reads. My husband reads voraciously and rapidly – a lot of adventure stuff, but geographical non-fiction as well and a few surprising ones that have caught his eye either at the library or a BookCrossing Meetup.
    Reading is de-coding and you have to be willing to figure out the code in order to reach the satisfaction level. You have to be prepared to learn the conventions of writing and publishing as well. For people who were brought up on some other alphabet or publishing pattern there is a lot to unlearn.

  14. David Ronaldson says:

    All of my close male friends are big readers; they’re also Rugby players, Football fans and beer (generally Real Ale) drinkers. We recommend one another books, sometimes swapping 12-book lists as annual reading challenges. It would be easy, then, to say “where’s the problem?”. However, in my local pubs, it seems I’m known as “the bloke who reads”, probably said with slight distaste. I’ve also stopped dropping reading into conversations with males outside my immediate circle of friends, as it often elicits blank stares. My 16-year-old Son reads one or two novels a year when he can tear himself off his PC, (or more likely when the wi-fi is playing up) having been a voracious reader at primary school. We do what we can…

  15. Jan says:

    Roger + Brian beat me to it – Libraries. They are key for everyone’s access to books and for me until relatively recently my access to the internet. Libraries are now in the hands of volunteers throughout most parts of the UK which is fine but the buildings are being sold off. Lyme Regis library is going to be demolished to make way for housing- at least it’s social housing but towns are looking at valuable sites occupied by libraries and there will be sell offs. Not great.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    I read Jan’s comment with distress. Volunteers are good but you do need real librarians to make them function properly. As for selling off the buildings one would hope that the problem is insufficient funds for the city to service its needs. That probably means Westminster, I suppose. The double doubt in that sentence is a query as to the actual need on the part of the corporation. I’m afraid we’re (hmm, ‘you’re’) going to have to demonstrate against the loss of libraries. Do we need another Carnegie to go around founding and funding libraries?

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