Books are obsolete. Passé. Nobody reads anymore. Even ebook sales have declined. Someone somehow determined that 80% of US families did not read a book last year. Should we believe such a statistic? Well maybe. It's all about screens, video, mobile, snippets and snatches of gossip or information or entertainment, its YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and they all blend together and they are less than the sum of their parts. Boundaries have evaporated. Attention spans are measured in seconds. A recent study by Microsoft claims that the average adult attention span is now just 8 seconds - less than a goldfish. Yes, a goldfish. We are all becoming guppies.
And yet in the spring warmth of a March desert weekend 140,000 people gather to see, hear and commune with nearly 500 authors in a veritable orgy of literary indulgence. For two days people crowd into rooms for readings and discussions. They stand in lines often by the hundreds, sometimes to be turned away as every seat is occupied. People swap stories of favorite authors and beloved books. Conversations are convivial, literate, devoid of sound bite simplicity or angry vitriol.
The population of Tucson where this all takes place is just over 500,000 and if the city is average that means that 20% are readers or about 100,000 people. If every one of those readers came to the festival then 40,000 visitors were in town for the event. So books are a great tourist attraction and something locals turn out for in large numbers. Pretty impressive for a dying medium.
Seeing an author whose work you have found engrossing is rather like first meeting a person you have talked to on the phone many times. You can not but have developed an image of them and the reality can be disappointing, even disconcerting. One of my favorite non fiction books is The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Egan; a wondrous melding of gripping personal stories with the grand sweep of historical events all set in the dust bowl catastrophe. In person Egan seemed the perfect embodiment of his stories. A self described lapsed Irishman from Montana, he proved to be a great story teller - insightful, thought-provoking and funny.
These events are great opportunities for new discoveries. On going to see Jared Diamond, author of such landmark book as Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, I discovered Felipe Fernández-Armesto; a man with Spanish name, a British accent, Roy Orbison glasses and a comedian's delivery, but with an intellectual's mindset. Someone to add to the reading list.
So do books matter? Is reading important as something more than entertainment for the graying segment of the population? Well, we hear a lot about the economic one percent but perhaps what is more significant is the literate twenty percent; the people who read, who think, who grapple with the issues that confront and shape our world and define our humanity.
So enough of this, go read a book.
One Small Voice
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