By Light Unseen Media
BLU~Media Blog

October 18, 2010

Remembering a passion for reading

Filed under: publishing,reading,writers,writing — Tags: , , , — admin @ 2:07 am

I have no conscious memory of a time when books, and reading, were not the reigning passions of my life.

I probably owe a lot to my parents for that. My mom read aloud to us from the earliest age that we could sit still and listen. I don’t recall my dad reading to us, but my dad loves books. In every house we lived in, he outfitted a complete library with walls of built-in bookcases, all of them packed with books. My dad’s “man caves” were full of dark varnished wood shelves lined with hundreds of mysterious, multicolored, enticing spines, from the tattered cardboard of the pulp “big little books” he collected, to gilt-embossed leather.

I was reading by the time I was four, without the benefit of preschool, Sesame Street or any coaching at all from my stunned parents. My folks didn’t buy their first TV until I was nearly three. Television never became more than a colorful, but ultimately boring novelty for me. The world inside of my own imagination was always infinitely more engaging.

When I was in grade school, my reading was an intensely private activity. These were the days when being The Fat Kid made you a freak, not just one of the obese 30% of your class like now, and I was bullied relentlessly for that and other things. Books were my sanctuary, and I would read my favorites over and over. The Island of the Blue Dolphins. Black Beauty. Beautiful Joe. Every Black Stallion and Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on (I still have some vintage Nancy Drews that are probably collectibles now–not that I’m ever giving them up). Gone with the Wind. The Yearling. Lassie Come Home. The Borrowers books. The Wind in the Willows. The Two Jungle Books. A Wrinkle in Time (which my sixth grade teacher read aloud to us) and later, the rest of L’Engle’s series. Fantasy by Lloyd Alexander, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson, Alan Garner, Carol Kendall, J.R.R. Tolkien. As I got a little older, I inhaled whole new genres by the stack. Every Gothic romance paperback the local library branch owned; all of Zane Grey (not a word of which I can now remember). Horse stories by the dozen, and anything with a touch of fantasy, magic or science-fiction.

At the age of twelve, I plunged into vampires and the paranormal, beginning an obsession that has never once flagged. Besides reading Dracula in one sitting, this led to an interest in tracking down esoterica: obscure books, articles and information. In my spare time, I pored through The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, card catalog Subject headings, the back page ads of dubious magazines, the footnotes and bibliographies of books…anything that could lead me to More Of What I Liked.

It wasn’t until high school that I realized there were other people as fiercely passionate about books and reading and the arcane as I was. I thought I was the only one! By then I was hoovering up fantasy and science-fiction, and I attended my first science-fiction convention in 1973, when I was sixteen. I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, C.S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Bellairs (whom I met at a convention), and I joined The Mythopoeic Society.

But my family wasn’t affluent. I can vividly recall when my definition of unattainable wealth consisted of being able to spend an entire $100 on nothing but books–because when I was in high school, that was almost unimaginable for me. I found lots of sources for inexpensive books. A big one was the catalogs for Publishers Central Bureau, which I now know was a brokerage for remaindered titles, but which I saw then as a repository for rare and unusual gems just waiting for the patient (and keen-eyed–the catalogs were set in 4-point type). I could spend hours in used book stores. My avidity led, inevitably, to a few disillusioning rip-offs: some of you may recall an erstwhile little company named T.K. Graphics, a science fiction and fantasy mail order house that folded owing lots of people a lot of money for back-ordered books.

I found a number of equally book-devouring friends and we passed tips and leads and titles back and forth. “Bibliomaniacs,” we called ourselves. We thought we’d made the word up.

As I got older, I had less time to read–but, at least for a few years, more money to spend. There was a decade or so during which I could not walk into Barnes & Noble without dropping at least $80. Those days ended when I went back to graduate school, and now I read less than ever. But it’s not merely the time or money factors. I’ve heard other writers talk about this. As my creative talents evolved and deepened, they demanded more and more of my energy. Now, I’m far more invested in creating my own works of art and fiction than in passively consuming the work of others. I still enjoy reading immensely, but usually I find that it stimulates my muse more than relaxes me. I do most of my reading just before bedtime. But I can still spend hours immersed in a book–or a series of them!–when I’m in the right mood, and I still spend far more leisure time reading than I do watching movies or television.

But I recognize my younger self in the legions of book bloggers, and if I was a twenty-something now, I’d be one of them. There are still millions of people who live to read, who network and share recommendations and search–no, forage, hungrily, incessantly, for More Of What They Like. We can’t get enough of it, we readers. An author sweats and slaves and labors over a book for a year and we stay up all night to finish it in one long, dripping, literary chug-a-lug, wipe the foam off our noses and ask when the author’s next book will be released. We are insatiable.

Notice that I’m referring to “reading,” not “books” in any one form. Yes, I love bound, paper books–old, new, hardcover, paperback, large, small, any kind of books. But for me, the content of the book was the key to its appeal. A physical book was simply a vehicle for the thoughts and soul of an author, and what mattered to me was the communion, the meeting of minds, that the book facilitated. I find that same communion in ebooks and audiobooks, in books read on a website or serialized in a magazine, books read as typescript or galleys or mass market paperbacks or bound between boards so heavy the book has to rest on a table to be read. Reading is a one-on-one transaction. There’s the author, and there’s me. The rest is details.

This is why I became a publisher. This is why merely being “a writer” wasn’t enough. Writing, for me, is like breathing–I do it every day, I write compulsively and obsessively, when I stop writing, you can bury me, I’ll be dead. But it’s only one side of the bridge–the connecting miracle between the author and the reader. I wanted to build the whole bridge. I wanted to master the means by which two minds co-create a work of the imagination or intellect by sharing it. Publishing is the process of collecting the raw creative output, shaping it into a form that can be transferred, and making it available for others to experience. I wanted to understand and do all of that–not just for my own work, but for the work of others.

I wanted it because I remember so poignantly what it is to have a passion for reading, to be endlessly searching for just the right story, just the right book. I wanted to help many kinds of authors and readers find each other, not just the readers who would enjoy what I happen to write.

It seems to me that many of my fellow publishers have forgotten who is at the off-ramp end of their bridge. In all the interminable pontificating and punditry I read about “the future of publishing” and “changes in the industry” and “what new publishing models mean for authors,” very few publishers seem to understand their readers’ point of view. Do publishers nowadays remember what it was like to be a passionate reader? Were publishers actually readers, ever?

I think there was a time, before 1970 or so, when most publishing houses were owned and run by serious readers, people who had a genuine love of literature. If that didn’t describe the CEOs, it certainly applied to the editors, and the editors had real power and influence in their companies. But I don’t think that’s true now. The old publishing houses have all been bought up by media conglomerates, reduced to “divisions” and “imprints,” and their editorial staff are overworked, committee-fied, stripped of decision-making power and expected to focus entirely on fast profits. Even small publishers are intent on “marketing,” and “building networks” and “branding” and “creating tribes.” They don’t see themselves as having readers. They’re competing for “consumers” or even just “eyeballs.”

This, I think, is the biggest problem the publishing industry faces right now. Not digital media, not piracy, not a falling interest in reading–publishers have forgotten how important their readers are. They’ve forgotten the one and only reason that publishers exist at all. We exist for our readers. Not authors: readers. Our readers are everything to us. When publishers lose track of what readers want, they’re floundering around in a desperate world of half-baked experiments and hysterical speculations. It’s because publishers have lost touch with their readers that ebooks are obscenely overpriced and retailers like Amazon, who do know what readers want, are shaking the industry to its foundation.

Authors write to be read, and publishers publish so that authors can be read. Without readers, we are nothing. I will never, ever forget that. I’m afraid that a great many of my fellow publishers have forgotten it–if they ever knew in the first place.

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