Rebuilding a Culture of Readers

Thought-provoking article here. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and it’s something I learned as a child. I also never saw a computer until I was 11 or 12. Sometimes I wonder how different I’d be if I’d been born after personal computers became ubiquitous.


Many of you have heard about the study recently released by Common Sense Media that shows US kids and teens are reading less proficiently, less often, and less for pleasure than the same age groups did 30 years ago.   If you’d like to see more details (and you should), please check out the summary article here or the full report PDF file here.

OK, so are you totally shocked?

No, of course not.  You kinda suspected that kids were reading less, right? I mean, there’s streaming video and social media; smart phones and Nintendo DS to distract them. Kids and teens 30 years ago  didn’t have that.

30 years ago, I was seven. If I was lucky, I watched Electric Company with my brother and sister after school and Dallas when Grandma was babysitting. (Sorry to rat you out, Grandma.) Otherwise, I played outside, secretly destroyed Barbies with my brother’s G.I…

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A to Z Day 21: Utopian

Utopian stories are set in perfect or near-perfect societies. Writers have created utopias in English for at least 500 years. The term as we use it today comes from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, which was first published in 1516. You can find antecedents in the practice of creating ideal states, a truly ancient philolosphical practice; and it is interesting that More’s book is both a work of narrative fiction and a social critique of European society.

The opposite of the utopia is the dystopia – a fictional society that has gone terrifyingly wrong. Dystopias are far more popular that utopias in contemporary fiction, and they are often presented as cautionary tales or social criticism. I have to think hard to come up with more than a couple of utopian works without a search enging (More and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon are the only ones that just spring to mind). The list of dystopian works I can name off the top of my head is long. Here are a few (links to their Goodreads pages):

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Utopian and dystopian settings are popular in speculative fiction. You could even argue that they are speculative fiction by their very nature, even when they don’t contain a lot of sci-fi or fantasy elements. Some authors even combine them. It’s not uncommon to find writers playing with these concepts by doing things like creating an obvious dystopia but having everyone who lives in it convinced it’s a utopia (well, except for that one guy at the center of the story, and perhaps a few social elites).

Utopias and dystopias work well in film. So well, in fact, that I have an easier time naming dystopian movies than I do naming dystopian books.

A to Z badge by Jeremy of  Being Retro

A to Z Day 19: Social

I think writing has a social component that isn’t emphasized enough, especially at the level of Sbasic fundamentals. I grew up thinking of writing as a solitary thing. The popular image of the writer hunched over a desk into the wee hours of the morning, not socializing for weeks on end, neglecting his family to pursue the craft, and so on, is culturally powerful.

That image has a solid factual basis. Much of writing is like that, and writers who are distant from social life because they are so driven to create are not difficult to find.

However, that image isn’t a complete picture. Many people will disagree with me, and some will no doubt say I’m in danger of adding marketing to the writing process. But this is what I believe. The part where you create a draft is only one part of writing. The process isn’t finished until you’ve made the decision to release a piece of work into the wild and found other people to read it.

That doesn’t mean only writers with large audiences are proper writers. It just means that, unless you’re writing in your personal journal, the whole point of creating a text is so that people can interact with it. I have a private metaphor I use for writing sometimes. It’s like painting in words, but the paper isn’t the canvas. Other peoples’ imaginations are the canvas.

It’s a good idea to have people read your drafts in progress, if you can find the right sort of reader for that. It’s also important to listen to feedback and think about it, whether the feedback is on a finished piece or on something in-process. Not all feedback is helpful, but a lot of it can be.

The periods in my life when I’ve made the most progress with my writing in the shortest amount of time were:

1. Junior and sophomore years in college. Those are the years I took 4 poetry and fiction workshops, which required me to produce regularly and sit quietly while other people critiqued my work when it was my turn. By then, I also had a lot of friends who were into writing and thought I could be pretty good at times, so I had plenty of people outside the classroom who I felt safe sharing my work with.

2. Second and third years as a small-town newspaper editor. I was an experienced reporter by the time I got my first job editing. I spent the first year learning about administration and advertising, and the second two redesigning and improving the paper I worked for. During the second year I started getting reader comments on a lot of my stuff, and plenty of them were just negative. But a lot were helpful. Again, being forced to write every day and listen to a ton of feedback are the two things I credit for my improvement.

3. Graduate school. I didn’t do the graduate work in English, but I did choose a writing-intensive discipline. So, no workshops, but at that level, the student-to-instructor ratio is good and I was fortunate enough to find a program with a lot of professors who were interested in helping students improve their skills. The same principles apply here, and I think these are enough examples to make my point.

I went with this topic instead of the original one because I think the social element of writing is just that important. This is the conclusion of a sort of miniseries that Started with Q and continued with yesterday’s post, but really, if you think about it, I’ve almost closed a circle I started drawing on Day 1. Tomorrow, we’re on to tone, and from thence to a handful of fabulous words like Villanelle and Zeugma.

A to Z badge by Jeremy of Being Retro. Voltaire pin from Part Time Monster’s Reading and Writing board.

How I do Political and Social Commentary

I haven’t done a real writing post here in awhile, and since I’ve been writing quite a bit of commentary lately, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about how I do it. It’s a little different from the other forms of writing I do, so I approach it differently.

First of all, if you take a look at the political stuff I’ve done here and at Sourcerer, you’ll notice that I try to write about issues rather than people. Now, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid writing about people, because politics is a social thing. But for the most part, I don’t talk about party politics, elections, or specific ideological adversaries if I can help it. The reason I approach it that way is because writing about people rather than issues generates conflict, and while that may be good for a few extra page views, it creates problems. Once things become personal, reasoned discussion goes right out the window and the best thing to do is find a way to disengage. I won’t pretend I’m perfect with this. Usually, if I’m writing about a political issue at all, I have an emotional stake in it. But I do make an effort to stick to issues.

This may not be as apparent unless you follow me very closely, but when I get into political mode, I tend to focus on the issue I’m writing about until I’ve done all I can with it. This means posting plans change, maintenance gets postponed, and networking takes a back seat to writing. That’s because political blogging is such a small part of what I do, and I don’t do it just to express my opinion and have a debate. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a legitimate thing to do, lots of people love it, and there are plenty of blogs that have grown huge audiences by doing that very thing. But it’s just not my style.

If I’m spending my time blogging about a political or social issue, it’s because I see something that I think needs to change, and I’m trying to have a political effect. I’m very realistic about just how much effect one small-time blogger can have, but I still put all my effort into it once I decide to take up a cause, and I use the same rhetoric I’d use if I were writing for mass circulation. Most of the political things I blog about are things that I believe demand an immediate response. Usually, when I’m engaging in politics, I’m trying to write whatever I’m going to write as quickly as possible and offer it to people who might actually use it.

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How much time do your countrymen spend on books?

– This is a very interesting infographic, and it’s just the sort of thing I like to feature here when I’m not posting specifically about writing.

Thatthereengland - does Japan

That was the question that kick-started the rather lovely infographic you can find here. It’s based on a World Culture Score Index from a survey that included around 30,000 across the globe.

As can be seen from the map, people in India (10 hours 42 hours), Thailand (9 hours, 24 minutes), China (8 hours), the Philippines (7 hours, 36 minutes), Egypt (7.5 hours) and the Czech Republic (7 hours, 24 minutes) spend the most time on reading. The numbers are weekly, meaning that the average Indian reads for well over an hour every single day. Americans and Germans seem less inclined to pick up a book. In both nations, the average weekly time spent reading is 5 hours and 42 minutes.

Of the 30 nations surveyed, Koreans spent the least time reading: 3 hours, 16 minutes each week.

The data comes from 2004 and 2005, so it might have changed…

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Woody Guthrie’s Resolutions

– This is priceless. I wonder how many of them he kept.

Jean Zimmerman

The finest list of New Year’s Resolutions to be had – or  New Years Rulins’ as he called them – penned by Woody Guthrie in 1942 at the age of 30. A few of these are far beyond me, writing a song a day for example, but I think I could benefit by staying glad and dancing better.


1. Work more and better

2. Work by a schedule

3. Wash teeth if any

4. Shave

5. Take bath

6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk

7. Drink very scant if any

8. Write a song a day

9. Wear clean clothes — look good

10. Shine shoes

11. Change socks

12. Change bed cloths often

13. Read lots good books

14. Listen to radio a lot

15. Learn people better

16. Keep rancho clean

17. Dont get lonesome

18. Stay glad

19. Keep hoping machine running

20. Dream…

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