Does Reading Need to Be Saved?

Fahrenheit 451 image

Source: lithub.com

In our local News & Review paper, I read an article titled, “The Man Who Saved Reading.” Honestly, I didn’t know we were in danger of losing it, like an endangered animal teetering on the edge of extinction. The Great American Read, sponsored by PBS, had Americans reading by the thousands, perhaps millions. Local libraries throughout the U.S. are also responsible for keeping the literati alive in us. Series books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have excited the masses, of all ages, just to name two. But the article focused on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and all the political wrangling the director of the NEA had to deal with before leaving to return to his writing roots, and how he struggled against Republicans (who consider the NEA “purveyors of smut”, if you can believe it) determined to cut their budget down to almost nothing. It seems to me that the one of the reasons for this is we value success more as a measure of financial and material wealth rather than as knowledge and wisdom gained through the enlightenment found in books.

The author of the article, Scott Thomas Anderson, wrote: “In 1953, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 described a future where novels are relics and human thought is enslaved by interactive screens.” Talk about foresight – and forewarned. The NEA directed the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct a large survey on the participation in the arts. This was the shocking result:

With the rise of digital media, less than half of U.S. adults were now reading literature.

Ouch. To top it off, the survey showed a ten-percentage point decline over the last twenty years, a loss of twenty million potential readers. Ouch again. This drop, according to the survey, spread across every age group, every ethnic group, both genders, and all income levels. The steepest decline was among persons aged 18 – 34 (the Digital Generation). Yikes.

Anderson also wrote: “Other studies by the NEA also showed that people who didn’t read books were less likely to vote in elections, volunteer for charities, and support cultural institutions [and, I believe, be less informed about life and different cultures in general].” If you don’t read and activate your imagination, get outside of yourself and escape into a good book, how can you vote (awareness of the issues), be more open-minded, and be willing to serve others?

The results make sense to me, especially the forewarning by author Ray Bradbury. You see it everywhere: people plugged in to their earbuds or headphones and tuned out. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to walk around young people so deep into their phones they didn’t even see me. We use computers (phone, laptop, etc.) to look up words and they finish the spelling for us. How can we learn/grow if machines do all the work? While technology certainly has improved some aspects of our lives, I also believe they’ve made us lazy because they can do so much more, much faster than humanly possible. (I still prefer to look up words in a dictionary, it keeps my spelling skills fresh.)

As writers, we can’t let good literature go extinct; we must rail against the onslaught of technology by producing worthy work. Are we, the authors, writing good stories to enthrall the masses, to keep good literature from disappearing? We MUST. It’s one of the reasons I no longer publish in eBook format. I prefer the feel of the book in my lap, the smell of the pages (especially the older classics, they just smell better), the look of some fonts, the touch of a good leather binding. It’s all a part of the reading experience and we, the writers, must do what we can to ensure that book reading does not go the way of the dodo bird. We must create good literature, evoke wild imaginations; we must inform, teach, and tell the good story worth reading.

Graphic Un-Design

graphic design image

Memorial Weekend loomed and my anticipation escalated; I’d been looking forward to this for a long time. Over the past year or so, I have contemplated changing the eBook cover to my fiction novel, Rescue on White Thunder. I knew the basic, cheesy cover was not really helping sell my book and I obsessed over making a change. I also discovered a few writing errors I missed with my hundreds of previous edits, so I set about making those changes to the manuscript but delayed a new book cover due to budget constraints. With all the options out there on the World Wide Web, surely there was someone I could afford to have design a new cover for my eBook. Or so I thought.

Alas, it was not to be. I stupidly went to Fiverr to get an affordable book cover since I’d had good luck with my nutrition book there (well, sort of…long story that ended in my favor). I located a young woman here in the U.S. (which is difficult, since many of the people on Fiverr are not). After reviewing her book cover portfolio a few times, I made the decision to purchase a book cover from her. Sadly, it did not go well. First, the order arrived later than promised. When I finally saw the email that my work was completed, I anxiously opened the message, anticipating a sparkling new cover that would now sell gazillions of copies of my book. The new cover looked NOTHING like the book summary I’d sent. Did she even read it? I asked myself. I sent the cover back with a revision request, my hopes dashed in an all too quick moment of ecstasy. I waited for a response. And waited. And waited. By now, Memorial Weekend was almost over and still no response. Perhaps she’s working on the revision, I tried to convince myself. It is a holiday weekend, maybe she’s out having fun, I excused. By the end of the fun-filled (for someone else, I’m sure) weekend, still no response. With great regret (and an imagined loss in gazillions of book sales dollars), I cancelled the order and requested a refund. Oddly, she responded to that request within twenty-four hours and agreed. Hmmmm…

It made me rethink the whole eBook thing. With scammers on the rise and sites offering free copies of eBooks illegally (I had this problem and it was a pain to clear up), I made the decision to take my book off Amazon/Kindle, at least for a short respite while I re-evaluate. Instead, I’m going to invest in a new book cover for a hard cover print book because I think that will serve it better than even a paperback style. Seems to me that print books still sell better, as people like to curl up with a good book and a hot cuppa. I know I do (just today finished a fabulous read titled Three Souls by Janie Chang – a must read). And I’ll have better control over scamming issues, since it’s harder with print books. I imagine I’ll still have to deal with the occasional idiot third-party seller on Amazon trying to sell my work for an ungodly amount.

Part of what bothers me is how devalued graphic design work has become with the advent of the Internet and the multitude of websites where we can find these so-called experts in graphic design. I’ve reviewed many portfolios and I see a pattern: each graphic designer has a singular style that they seem to use for all their projects, changing only color, font, and background as dictated by the genre. Even the young woman who created my nutrition book cover falls into this repetitive pattern as a blueprint for all her works (which I didn’t notice until after the fact). It’s bad enough we have additives in our foods to make them all look and taste the same in every bottle; now graphic design is following suit. Conformity, lack of style and originality; unless we can afford only the best of services, many writers are doomed to copycat book covers with little novelty. 

Caveat emptor, my fellow writers – Buyer Beware. And, lest you forget – you get what you pay for, so make it worthwhile.