Of course, I know it’s not a spectator sport, there wasn’t some point in history where the public used to gather in concert halls or football stadiums and hold mass book reading ceremonies. It’s always been a private activity, which takes place behind closed doors in small groups or in isolation, almost as though there is something shameful about it.
But I do feel that these days I just don’t see people reading books as much as I used to.
Here’s an example. Recently I was on a family holiday to Cyprus, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean (see pretty picture!) Holiday reading is a big deal, so much so that for many mass market authors, getting your titles stocked in airport book stores is a major aim. I am betting there are people who read on their holidays who don’t pick up a book at any other time of year. Yet, on my four and a half hour flight to Cyprus from the UK, on a plane packed with passengers, something was conspicuous by its absence – where were the books? The books, which I remember pretty much everyone clutching in the holiday flights of my youth, were gone.
I looked around me on a couple of trips up and down the aisle during the flight and counted only a handful of book readers. Many people were staring at phones, some had tablets, we might hope some of those were using them to read eBooks, but many of them had headphones, they were watching video.
When I reached my hotel I expected to find books around the pool and at the tables of the bar. There’s not a lot else to do when sunbathing in temperatures of more than 30 degrees right? There was a time when everyone had a book on the table by their sun lounger, even if they didn’t open it. But these books too were missing. Often I was the only person in the place reading a book – Alice Munro’s selected stories, which I can recommend.
The trip back on the plane, same thing. Videos, phones, no books.
Now, I don’t want to overstate this, there was a table in the hotel lobby where people would leave items they had finished with for other holiday makers to use and, along with the bottles of sunscreen, there were books, mostly thrillers and crime novels, though I never saw anyone pick one up. Something which used to be a key part of many people’s holiday activity seems to have shifted down a gear.
So maybe I accidentally booked a package holiday for people who hate books? But then, I thought, where else have I seen people reading books recently? Even when I visit the library, surely the last bastion of book readers, the only section which is ever full to capacity is the bank of computers where people access the Internet. On the bus to work, thankfully, there are one or two fellow book readers on every trip – but only one or two, on a full double-decker bus.
Does my observation amount to anything? It’s only anecdotal and we should not generalise from the particular. But I have a feeling we are witnessing a shift in people’s behaviour. Perhaps we are slowly moving away from reading books, either in print or on-screen, and over to other forms of entertainment. There are so many options available now, it’s no wonder people’s attention has been split. I didn’t see anyone reading a print newspaper on those flights, and precious few with a print magazine, but that’s another story.
At a time when more and more books are being produced by more and more authors it feels to me like the band of readers might be on the wane.
What do you think?
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