KR Blog

Grand Theft Hamster

I’ve grown so accustomed to bad news about the state of literature that I can’t help feeling a little stumped by news of the latest report by the National Endowment for the Arts showing a slight reversal in the decline in fiction reading in the U.S. Good news? Really? Must be a sampling error. Or maybe reading is all that’s left to us now that the bank has repossessed the house, the big-screen TV, and the Xbox. And even if people are reading more books, they’re apparently not buying them, leading to the recent round of staff layoffs and acquisitions freezes at major publishing houses. So now we’ll have more readers but fewer books. That sounds to me like an economist’s dream. Everyone’s a best seller! (Or maybe we’ll all just go to the library.)

Here in England, the latest news on the literacy front is a report showing that the problem is . . . wait for it! . . . boys. In a recent study, 21% of boys admitted that they don’t like books, preferring TV, movies, and especially computer games. (Only 13% of girls said the same thing. Swots!) The answer, according to Oxford University Press, is Project X, a new series of “action-packed” books especially for boys that are designed to look like video games:

The books centre on the character of Max and his friends Cat, Ant and Tiger, who find their watches have the power to make them shrink, opening up a world of adventures.

The friends end up snowboarding on spoons, exploring inside a sandcastle, white-water rafting on pencils and surfing on lolly sticks.

In later books they encounter Dr X, a villain intent on shrinking the whole world.

Frankly, I’m not sure how to feel about this development. On the one hand, anything that gets kids reading is a good thing. But it does bring to mind that scene in Annie Hall where the little boy looks at the camera and says, “I used to be a heroin addict. Now I’m a methadone addict.” Will reading Hamster Rampage (one of the titles in the new OUP series: a trip to London goes horribly wrong when Ant’s pet hamster accidentally grows to giant size!) really lead boys to David Copperfield, or is it more likely to make them wish they could be driving that rampaging hamster through the streets of London on their computer screen? (Grand Theft Hamster: that’s my billion dollar idea for the day, free to any recently downsized editorial assistant now looking for a new career. Just another service to our readers provided by the KR blog!)

My favorite line about this new book series comes from a story in the Telegraph:

Sophie Quarterman, of the Oxford University Press, said: “All the research shows us that girls read because they are told to and will read anything put in front of them. But boys need to be given a reason to read. They need to feel they will get something out of it.”

So that’s the reason! Glad we cleared that up! And now we have a new schoolyard insult to add to the pleasures of childhood: “You read like a girl!” (Because you’re told to, that is, not because you enjoy it.) Girls, it seems, have never really gotten any pleasure out of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. They just lie back and think of England until it’s over. Boys, on the other hand, can’t be so easily fooled. They know the manly pleasures of computer-generated graphics and action-packed story lines. Give us bright, simple pictures and not too many words on the page. Oh, and hamsters. Men can’t get enough of hamsters.

I don’t mean to be dismissive about this new series. In fact, I admire the thought that goes into British “reading trees,” the primary school book series that gradually increase in difficulty as you follow the same set of characters. My daughter learned to read during our first year in England, using another OUP series featuring Biff, Chip, and Kipper and their dog Floppy, who went on a terrific series of adventures involving a magic key. A lot of thought goes into how children process language and graphics in these books, and we found them far more interesting than anything used by our daughter’s schools when we returned to the U.S.

Still, it seems to me that the reasons for the decline in reading are simpler, and not so easily solved by bright graphics and exciting story lines. We have more pleasures available to us to occupy our time, more ways to connect with the world and excite our imaginations, than we did in the literate past. TV is effortless, and computer games reward effort in immediate ways. The answer, which commercial publishers never seem to learn, isn’t that we should all write like Tom Clancy because men like explosions or like Candace Bushnell because women like shoes. What reading offers is a different pleasure, quieter and more sustained than anything we can get on a screen. It may be that it’s unrealistic to expect reading for pleasure to support a corporate-style publishing industry in the way it has over the last century, but let’s keep in mind that mass-market publishing is a recent development in the life of the book. If we teach boys to read and point them toward good books, some will read, while others will drift away into World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Hamster. You can’t make people read (except, maybe, girls). The best we can do is to look for more efficient and sustainable ways to publish books worth reading.

Sadly, it seems that in recent days publishing has fallen into the hands of Dr. X, a villain intent on shrinking the whole world. Like Ant and his friends, we have no choice but to shrink along with it. Now if only we had a hamster . . .

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