We, 21st Century Readers

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Let’s talk about, instead of books, readers.

I’m thinking lately about who we are as readers, why we read (or don’t read).

Reading Frenzen’s Essays has prompted me to think about why we read. He asks himself why he writes. And for writers, reading is a symbiotic process. They are also readers, and they aspire to have readers. We are their audience. They define themselves, in a way, by who we are. They exist if we do, or because we do.

Let’s look at the world’s literary periods: a Classic Period (Greek, Roman, Patristic -early christian writers-), followed by the Medieval Period,  The Renaissance and Reformation, The Enlightenment, Victorian Period and 19th Century, Modern Period, and Postmodern Period.

I sometimes forget to put a book in its historical context. That helps me as a reader, to understand why it’s so difficult for me to connect with the book. Difficulties arise from the language front, or the content, or both. When everything is too removed from my experience, it’s very hard to read. But reading enlarges my experience, therefore, after some time, reading by proximity (not chronological, but ability speaking), books that years ago were way out of my reach, are now inside my reading radar, sending a strong signal.

Why would anyone want to read something which she doesn’t understand? That’s another question. Many today read just as a pass time, others read to learn, some read a bit for both. Why do I read? I don’t think I read just to pass the time, though sometimes I read to pass the time. I not only read to learn either, though I surely read to learn. I read to live, I guess. It’s difficult to define the whole of my reading life. I want to enjoy what I read, but I believe I can educate my taste, or expand it, little by little. When I push my reading limits, I know I’m growing, and also enjoying, and growing some more…

So, who are we, 21st century readers?

Frenzen says that a lot of women who live lives very different to that of their moms, are substantial readers (meaning readers who read substantial books, books that are not just light literature, for example, The Brothers Karamazov, etc). Are we, 21st century readers, substantial readers? I know I am.

He believes there’s a relationship between TV, technology, and our diminished numbers of new readers. Some who used to read are deserting the reading front, new generations are not as strongly linked to books as people were in the past. I don’t know if we are loosing numbers, or if the reading squadrons are realigning. I believe technology is in the way of reading, yes, and so it’s TV. I am a reader and at times, if I switch to watching a TV series, or movie, my reading suffers. Reading requires a very different pace to life, and the distance gets bigger the more we gravitate to TV. But I’m not ready to say that TV and technology are that bad. I have learned from TV. Many may shake their heads, but TV shows and movies, like books, are not all the same. There’s a variance in the spectrum (books, TV, entertainment), from light, to what I’m going to call, copying Frenzen, substantial.

I think that, because I homeschool the girls, I started to read this way where I combine growth and enjoyment, together with challenging myself and discovering the classics (or some of those) to share them with my girls. Sometimes it takes us time to appreciate a book, others we click immediately, but we pick our books with a multiple goal approach, and to cover a variety of purposes. So, yes, back to the reading to live (and learn, grow, enjoy, shape our character…) I compare this to food taste too. I not always liked grapefruit. I kept trying, eating it, and nowadays, I love it. It may be a silly example, but I believe it’s true for books. And we don’t have to force ourselves to enjoy variety either. It’s just a matter of choosing a path, (sometimes finding it along the way), and maybe setting up some goals. Reading with others helps me always to stretch my boundaries, and I find treasures in unexpected places.

They say that we, modern readers, relate everything to ourselves. Not only, we put ourselves in front of the text constantly. I think it’s wonderful that we are so personalized in our reading, informed, and opinionated. We have many venues to express what we like, what we don’t, and we contribute to the talk about books. It doesn’t only have to be academics the ones talking about books. Any reader is qualified and entitled to her opinion. But I believe it’s good to know we all put ourselves in front of the book. Sometimes, for a change, it’d be good to try to let the text talk to us, without that urge to give an opinion about it. Just because we don’t understand every single word, or because the plot is moving slow, or the book is not of the genre we favor, we don’t have to close the doors to any possible relationship with it.

I like my friends who read, some of them are always worried or sad when they don’t seem to like a well established classic. It’s a practice I appreciate, that of trying to find redeeming qualities in books we don’t like, and to honestly ask those who do like that book to let us know what they see, find, or get from the book. I do that too. It enriches me, even if I still don’t like a book, I want to listen to what others think.

Who are we, then, 21st century readers? I believe we are survivors, peaceful crusaders, lonely rangers, book club peeps, education invested housewives, unsung heroes, devoted fathers, casual readers, substantial readers, children, tweens, and teens, swimming against the technological fast paced current fish, Goodreads members, library lovers, community builders, blog reviewers, paperback lovers, Kindle handlers, myth busters, some-titles-and-authors-intimidated, large minority, peculiar majority, ‘we, the readers’…

(fotos in this post by my friend Patrick)

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8 comments on “We, 21st Century Readers

  1. You said: “Frenzen says that a lot of women who live lives very different to that of their moms, are substantial readers”. Hmmm…interesting statement. What did Frenzen mean by this? Or did Frenzen not elaborate on that idea?

    Regarding what you said about when you watch TV more, your reading suffers. I notice that when I am wrapped up in a TV series, I tend to read less. However, I don’t think this is a unique characteristic of TV watching. I think it can be anything. One could be wrapped up in a crocheting project and therefore read less. One could be working on a painting and read less. One could be learning to increase their skills in the kitchen by trying new recipes and read less. 🙂

    I love how you characterized your reason for reading: reading to live. I have been thinking about this idea too, that of why we read. And thus, thinking about why *I* read. I like how you defined reading to live: “reading to live (and learn, grow, enjoy, shape our character…)”

    And talking about books, I agree that this enriches us. Being able to discuss books with others, finding out what others like and don’t like about a book, what others learned from the book, etc. – this enriches us. It can help us see things in a book that maybe we didn’t see or enlighten us with ideas that we hadn’t thought about.

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  2. Frenzen’s essay, Why Bother?, was about why bother to write. It’s his questioning as an author of why to write. And when he talks about readers, he mentions a woman he met, who did research on ‘do people read today?’, if so, who reads books?, and she interviewed lots of people at airports and places where some were reading books, to see what kind of books they read, etc. She found out that a lot of the readers of ‘substantial books’ (meaning hard books, classics, books that have some level of difficulty, like The Brothers Karamazov, etc.), were women who lived lives that were very different to the life of their mothers. I fall into that category, my life is very different to my mom’s. (It could be that we read to understand ourselves, to project ourselves into many different scenarios, because we find company, solace, advise, and more, in books). Frenzen describes reading as something we do alone, but also something that gets you closer to others.

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  3. And I agree, it’s not just TV, but anything that takes central stage in our life at any given time, that pulls us away from the books. And I don’t think that’s always bad, it depends on what’s that something that’s feeding on your time. Even reading can be detrimental if we do it at the expense of some needed activity or occupation.

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  4. I still think often of a quote that was shared in the C.S. Lewis movie Shadowlands by one of his students: “We read to know that we’re not alone.” That’s simplistic but profound also. We read to know that we’re not alone in our pain, in our suffering, in our joy, in our failures. But we can see that this translates to any kind of reading whether blog reading or Facebook reading or magazine reading in addition to books.

    But what I love about reading books is that you’re not forced to come up with an immediate response or opinion (like we feel we should on social media or even on a blog) because we can sit with the book and think on what we just read…examine it maybe, roll it over in our minds. And then share with others. We’re with a book (if we stick with it) for at least a week or two, immersing ourselves in 200 or more pages, so we get time to dwell and discover. Not all books are like this, of course, and not every thought or idea will be profound or life-changing. But it still gives you that time to ponder.

    But it’s also the sad state of many 21st century readers who don’t often delve into the depths of substantial books but rather subsist upon surface-level social media sharings and cursory online reading (not that we can’t ever partake of that kind of material as I’m on Twitter catching up here and there 🙂 ). It affects us all though and it’ll be interesting to see how this progresses in the future.

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    • Karen, Kim, THANKS SO MUCH for your generous comments, I appreciate all you contribute to the conversation.
      Yes, Kim, I totally agree with you, it’s sad that many only stay at the surface of reading. I enjoy media conversations. All the media places are here to stay, I like to acknowledge that, and not only, but I try to understand the role media has in my life, and technology, and the limitations. I believe many of the arguments that happen in FB are because of the limitations of such a venue, like Twitter, or any other immediate way of communicating where you cannot see the person. There’s personal communication, which is, in my opinion, the most complete. When we can see the other person, and rectify our statements, or clarify what we say if we think it’s been taking in a different light. And though words spoken stay, they are not in writing. That’s the other known way of communication, through books. And that’s also complete, because in the space of a book, an author usually has an opportunity to express his thoughts and open a dialogue with the readers. In between, there’s blogs, email, newspapers, articles, forums, phone, and then FB, Twitter, etc. They have more limitations. Specially when the audience is large, and when we don’t know the person behind the screen.
      I like all you shared, Kim, about what it means to read books, and why that experience is so intimate, and also public when we share it.
      I thought for a while that there were going to be two groups, those who embraced media and technology, and the ones who would always stick to just books, no TV policies, etc. But the two extremes I’ve described have a lot of people who overlap. To me, the beauty it’s to find my own place in a conscious and thought about effort to understand what both ends mean to me as a person. Everybody will have to find their own combination. What I encourage others to do, it’s that introspection on all this, and to chose consciously, versus following blindly what others around seem to be doing at the time.

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  5. I loved reading this, Silvia. Of course, to read is to live, to live to read. Or something Snoopy said once when he had writer’s block. Your last paragraph is Wonderful!!!

    And what Karen reminds us of, that we may lag in our reading not so much because of TV (though I’m guilty there!) but maybe sewing, or painting, etc.

    I wish I could listen to audiobooks. But I. Just. Can’t. And I’m in the car A Lot, and In the Kitchen A Lot. I’d trade the former any day but never the latter.

    And I think Kim makes a great point – we can savor what we’ve read, for years. I love thinking about books I’ve read. Almost as much as I love reading them again with my kids, or mom, or a dear friend.

    Which reminds me how much I miss you all, this free-ranging group of Reading Moms.

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    • Karen! I miss you so much, I cannot tell with words. And this ‘free-ranging’ group of Reading Moms, what a wonderful way to describe us.
      Don’t beat yourself up about not being able to do audio books. I can, but not all type of books, some are impossible.
      Do you have one person close to you with whom to discuss a few books. I have that with Kim, and it’s one of the highlights of my life right now.
      And I too love thinking about our old friends (the characters in the books, or the books themselves), that’s special.

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