Adele AKA Hagelrat: Why People Don’t Read

Adele is the fabulous hostess of Unbound, a lively book blog that covers a broad swath of authors (yes, I was recently a guest there myself!). She’s also pretty darn funny and an astute reviewer. As her post shows, she’s passionate about sharing the flame of reading.

Our awesome hostess has invited me to come and talk about something that matters to me about books. So that was easy really, it matters to me that people read. So I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the barriers to reading generally.

First and foremost the simple ability to read. I worked in young offender institutes briefly when I first left uni and the psychologist in one of those YOI’s told me that in that particular one only 19% of the kids were educated to primary level or above. These are 16 – 18 year olds who cannot read or write to the same level as six year old. Add to that that in the UK when I was small dyslexia was a middle class excuse for stupid and few people could afford to get their dyslexic kids an appropriate education. The attitude to learning difficulties has improved massively over the last 30 years but there are plenty of people in the UK right now of every age who simply cannot read. They therefore do not have access to the quiet pleasure of written stories. Many of them have never had the joy of being read to either so the whole world of non visual story telling is lost to them. When you think of how fundamental story telling is to us as a species, part of our identity, our moral code, the offer of adventure and experience beyond what we can hope to actually have for ourselves and illiteracy is a huge tragedy and the loss of part of our social identity.

Perhaps the power of social media should be harnessed for the forces of good, to raise awareness and push this massive problem into the public consciousness so that in another 30 years time we won’t be having this conversation again?

Another thing that is becoming a cause for concern is access to books. For those of us who already have a passion for reading it sounds silly, there are libraries and bookstores and the internet and frankly the hundreds of books in our homes already. There are friends to borrow from and paperback exchanges and the charity shops. But many of these things are disappearing.

Waterstones is the last big bookstore throughout the UK, there are a few smaller specialist chains like Forbidden Planet, but the high street bookstores are gradually disapearing. What happened to Dillons, Ottakers, Blackwells? Are they still around at all? Borders UK has gone, Blackwells I think is just a campus store now. WHSmith spreads itself too thin and is hardly a soothing browsing experience now, especially in Leicester where book browsers are bumped aside by the billions of visitors to the post office that is now situated there.

Libraries in schools are already becoming digital centres and city libraries are being chipped away at bit by bit serving community functions in priority to actually providing books and knowledge. I think there is room for libraries to do both, but to do both well requires money and commitment.

Gradually the processes by which we push the first paperbacks into people’s hands and let them discover the worlds within, get Kidnapped or seach for Treasure Island are being eroded. We have initiatives to fight back, World Book Day for one, BookDoctors (and ours here is both lovely and wonderful) but it’s not enough.

I am not considering ebooks here for a simple reason, browsing. In order to seek out, purchase and read and ebook you have to know you want to read, the discovery of reading comes from other sources than the computer. That of course segue’s me nicely into where the love of reading comes from. Grasping for the Wind recently did an around the blogosphere on this and I didn’t get my answer in on time, so you get my personal answer and my views generally now.

Love of reading for many of us comes from people who love to read. It’s simple but it’s true. My mother loved to read and won prizes for her poetry readings as a child so watching her stalk around the room reading Tennyson was enchanting. In the great tradition of our species my mother passed on her passion to me through oral storytelling, like a greek bard bringing stories to life in my mind while I listened. In order to get more stories than she had time for reading became my priority for myself.

At the points in my life where my reading habit has waned it has been friends lending me something that really captured my imagination that drew me back in: Tigs lending me a Clive Barker book when we were fourteen, Mandy lending me a selection of horror a couple of years ago when I was stuck for something new. Just being around other people who read has made a huge difference all through my life. One friend and I used to sneak out of school at lunch time to go to the local library because we’d exhausted the school one and when I left the area I gave her my library card because the six book limit was causing her problems. Now I am a book blogger and amateur reviewer, surrounded by people from all over the world that share this all consuming passion and I have realised two things: How many other people there are for me to share this with and how small the literary world really is.

One of the top sites for book reviews in the Booksmugglers blog, I believe they get about 26,000 visitors a month. In book blogging terms that’s huge, the publishers who specify usually state between 1,000 – 3,000 before they will put you on their lists.

Compare it to You Tube, one of the leading video sites available a quick search produced this from yahoo answers “In January 2008 alone, nearly 79 million users had made over 3 billion video views”. So in one month 26,000 want to look at one of the most popular book review sites as opposed to 70 million wanting to look at short videos of cats falling off stuff and clips from old tv shows.

It seems sometimes that everyone reads, because we surround ourselves with people like us, but in the grand scheme of things regular readers are a minority group. Perhaps we should register ourselves as a charity and start a programme of aid work, doing live readings in school playgrounds at breaktime.

If people who love reading are the way in for new readers, then perhaps we have a civic duty to tout that love everywhere we go and at least try and provoke the question why.


  1. The Queen says:

    What a wonderful article! I try to pass on the skills & habits of reading onto younger family members and students who work for me- I keep a list of 'must-reads' for students that I hope will encourage them to seek out diverse authors….

  2. K. A. Laity says:

    That's terrific to hear, QoE. I was lucky that my parents encouraged reading and made a trip to the big state library downtown a big deal. It may have been cheap entertainment, but it made it special and we really appreciated it.

  3. Hagelrat says:

    Thank you your Highness. You should share some highights from your must read, I love seeingother peoples. :)Kate – Thanks for having me on hun, it was great fun.

  4. K. A. Laity says:

    Delighted to feature you, Adele. It's a fabulous piece and very compelling. People are reading more now than ever, but it tends to be superficial and poorly done — maybe it should really be called 'scanning' instead. Reading for pleasure, reading for knowledge seems to be slipping away.

  5. K. A. Laity says:

    Oh, and I'd love to see the "must read" list, too, QoE.

  6. Adele, Kate, I couldn't agree more. My parents made sure I had access to books from the start. I've never grown tired of it. We all need to "pitch in' on this problem because the schools–at least in the U.S.–have dropped the ball disgracefully. Now how to convince a young mind that a good book is worth twenty virtual games….

  7. Hagelrat says:

    what's more Jack, you can buy four or five books for one new video game, which even if you only read each one once is about the same game time.

  8. K. A. Laity says:

    I think there's a lot of reason to cheer the new e-readers. Most people who have them say they're buying more books than ever.

  9. Hagelrat says:

    I will never lose the pleasure I take in my library but yeah, ereaders have a lot of advantages too and I am glad to have more means for people to read.

  10. Cat Connor says:

    Fabulous Post Adele! I find it bizarre when I come across children who have never been read to, or whose parents don't read… they are missing so much!I did a lot of remedial reading work at our local primary school a few years back – was most enjoyable helping kids read and discover books. I find adults who proudly proclaim "I've never read a book in my life" (Like my Nana – who in 97 years NEVER read a book for pleasure or any other reason) to have narrow life views and be rather unimaginative. It's one thing to not be able to read – but to choose to not read… that stifles a person.I hate that all our independent book shops are closing! I can't wait until my books are in our libraries. :-)Now off to tackle the crypt keeper…

  11. K. A. Laity says:

    Cat, thanks for stopping by! Yes, I do find it astonishing that some people are proud of not reading. There's a whole anti-intellectual pride that is unfathomable to me.

  12. Many of those same issues with young people who are unable to read are here in the USA as well. I can't imagine not being able to read, any more than I can imagine not wanting to read.

  13. K. A. Laity says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Alex. When I think of all the hours — years! — of delight reading and writing have given me, the exquisite pleasure of running through someone else's mind — well, I wouldn't trade it for anything (sorry, world peace)!

  14. Hagelrat says:

    Cat, they are clearly ill in the head!Alex, I am with Kate, I wouldn't trade reading for world peace either.

  15. Todd Mason says:

    Well, a just and lasting peace might well encourage reading, except perhaps in a scenario akin to Vonnegut's GALAPAGOS…and even those mutant children of humanity are clearly storytellers.One key is to teach children to read before they get to school, which will almost inevitably associate it with drudgery…something that all the parents/adults in the overtime job world can make difficult, but it's crucial (writes the jobaholic non-parent…who benefited from a 1960s childhood with reasonably well-off parents in Alaska, which climactically rather encouraged finding interesting things to do around the house).Among the bad news…the idjits in the Florida gummint have defunded their libraries…can less insane states be too much farther behind?

  16. K. A. Laity says:

    Education in this country has been decimated, turned into a factory that bores children into docile behaviour and incarcerates the rest. No child is left behind when all children are.

  17. Todd Mason says:

    Sadly, there's never been a golden age of US education…the goal of US education since the industrial revolution has tended be teaching future workers how to sit at a desk (or eventuall stand at a workspace) and shut up. And not much more before the industrial revolution (since this country as a would-be independent state isn't much older)…I suppose one can learn to love reading with the aid of a great teacher or several, but to associate it primarily with the institutional setting of most schooling can't ever endear it the way that good parenting or personalized in loco parentis interaction might. I certainly had more than my share of indifferent and in one case borderline certifiable reading teachers once I hit the public schools in the earliest '70s…the loony would've been fired in a minute by Albert Shanker, and actually did disappear from our Boston-suburb school not too long after several incidents of publicly and strenuously verbally abusing me, in the last case interrupting one of her colleagues' classes to do so. But the indifferent ones couldn't quite be made up for by the one or two genuinely good ones in my experience…and I could already read perfectly well beforehand. Imagine if I was one of the no doubt several if not the majority who were dependent on the schools to put them on the literate path.

  18. K. A. Laity says:

    I was lucky enough to have some good teachers, but I was bored to tears and insulted by the bad ones. I have always been fond of Brautigan's line about his teachers who could have ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from him. I tried to get out of high school early and go to college but my folks weren't too keen on the idea, especially since I wanted to go to the New School.When bored I amused myself with writing silly stuff, which at least kept me from getting into trouble like some of my compatriots who engaged in more disruptive attempts to alleviate their boredom.

  19. Hagelrat says:

    Todd, Kate, the UK education system is largely deplorable too. I think it's tragic that the importance of basic reading skills seems to be lost on the people in power.

  20. K. A. Laity says:

    I think some of it is cynical: an ignorant populace is easy to manipulate. Sigh.My friend James teaches in a high school in Essex. His frustrations are myriad with the system and with the parents and students. I could never teach at that level; with college students, they can choose whether they want to learn — I get paid either way. But to have that much responsibility and so little support — nah, couldn't do it.

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