And one important point before I begin: this is not a cranky 'screed' - just an observation based upon a quiet, informal survey I've been conducting so far this summer on a nice, moderately-crowded but never too congested, typical (un-named) beach Down The Shore where I go -- sometimes with my wife, sometimes alone -- for R&R day-trips and a fish sandwich and large lemonade. Actually I am heading down there this morning as soon as I finish this blog. The clouds are lifting and so is the humidity....
As a published author, I hereby confess that to preserve my self-respect, I long ago stopped looking around me on subway cars, buses and NJ Transit commuter trips to see if anybody was actually reading one of my books. However, as a teacher of literature and lifelong laborer in the nonprofit national literacy community, I'm always interested to see what books people are reading in general, especially lately, with all the moaning and groaning about the decline of print.
This summer, at the beach, peering out from behind my dark glasses as unobtrusively as possible, I've noticed a disconcerting trend. From a demographic/age-level point of view, it goes like this. [NOTE: (1) Kids are exempt from this survey. They are building sand castles, looking for shells, running back and forth, nagging their parents for snacks -- doing all of the things kids are supposed to do at the beach. Kids, go ahead, have fun!]
(2) Teenagers are surfing, hanging out in large groups, playing cards, listening to iPods, flirting, eating and drinking, smoking. A few -- very few -- girls are flipping through magazines like People, US, or Glamour. Many are simply laying out in the sun or staring into space doing nothing in particular except for talking on their cell-phones every couple of minutes, checking messages, and texting.
(3) Young parents and grandparents are incessantly preoccupied with item (1) above, including taking care of babies.
(4) Middle-aged people -- I use this term in the most generous sense
so as to include myself -- are applying sunscreen to each others'
backs, adjusting umbrellas as the sun moves in its inexorable path
across the heavens, sleeping, flipping through the occasional magazine
such as People, US, and Glamour -- or Money or Business Week -- doing
crossword puzzles and calling out questions about definitions with six
or ten letters to those in their immediate vicinity, and Sudoku-ing
with the most intense expressions on their faces.
Maybe -- I repeat, maybe! -- a mere scattering of members of category (4) are reading Richard North Patterson or John Grisham or Danielle Steele. Let's say half a dozen people in a one-hundred yard stretch of sand.
Conclusion: According to my informal but conscientious survey, very, very few people on the beach this summer are actually reading a paperback book. Forget hardcover books. I have seen maybe one or two. And forget nonfiction, totally.
Summary: Here comes the hard part. On the one hand, I realize how stressful life is nowadays, as always, and I am the last person to condemn anyone for wanting to relax and be lulled by the surge of the ocean. On the other hand, I always thought that summer was supposed to be the one part of the year when we set aside time to pick up a nice, big, hefty narrative tale and lose ourselves in the special pleasures that come with an extended immersion in crafted words and a great plot; or go back to some of those classics we might have missed or disliked in college or high school; or even pick up on one of Oprah's excellent suggestions, which have been quite literary in recent years.
Harry Potter will be here before you know it, and the first printing is 12 million copies. OK, but then what? What about the more than 150,000 other titles that were published in this country during the past year? Where are they?
Like I said, I am not complaining. But I am worried.