Passing the office of a co-worker the other day I remarked on the stack of James Mitchener novels he had on his desk. There were two or three of them. "Well, y'know," he said smiling proudly, "I'm a reader."
Now I'm not sure why I should consider that remark so strange but I did at the time. It's true that this co-worker is not the sort of guy one would peg as "a reader." A former college hockey defenseman, he's a burly, jovial, gregarious fellow, well-liked around the office, educated (in practical matters, engineering, calculus - he keeps impeccable files and handles construction projects for the firm) and smart, though not in a bookish way. His tastes culturally-speaking are somewhat suspect and decidedly low-brow, an appreciater of seventies music and films, particularly the oeuvre of John Travolta of that period (he's also an Italian, and anything Italian, by Coppola for example, works for him) especially in roles where Travolta played opposite Olivia Newton-John, and anything for that matter that featured ONJ, especially her turn as the rollerskating angel in Xanadu.
But it was not the profile of this reader that threw me momentarily off. It was, rather, that he had even bothered to call himself a "Reader," as if there it were some sort of title, a moniker worthy of esteem, like saying, I'm an Earl, or a Duke. Undoubtedly he considered that by declaring himself a reader, he (like me, it's well known around the office that I am both a reader and a writer) had joined an exclusive club. But here's the thing, his declaration was also clearly meant as something revealing, something personal and perhaps even slightly subversive, like admitting "I'm a Habs fan" in the middle of Boston Commons.
When I shared these thoughts with my 14 year old daughter Sivan she immediately agreed and without a wink of hesitation. She understood exactly what I was talking about (which, by the way, doesn't happen terribly often these days.) "Just look at Facebook," she said. "In the space on Facebook reserved for Favourite Book, where I put books by Ian McEwan and Catcher in the Rye, the vast majority of my friends have written "Not a reader." Perhaps most astounding of all is that my daughter's cohort have absolutely no compunction about the public declaration that they are non-readers. There is no shame in it. On the contrary, it's like a badge of honour.
Let's be clear here, I'm not talking about reading as an everyday practical skill, one used and abused on a daily basis in virtually every walk of life. I'm talking about reading books. Actual, books! (and I make no distinction here between Danielle Steel and Philip Roth.) It appears that there are readers and non-readers, like smokers and non-smokers. Notwithstanding reports of ever increasing book sales, it would seem that as the ranks of smokers diminish with every generation, so do the ranks of readers. Perhaps a day will come when there are "readers sections" on airplanes, public transportation and restaurants. These would be quieter venues. And come to think of it, maybe this accounts for the success of places like Starbucks, which, unlike other eateries, saw a niche in catering directly to readers (and term-paper writers). Trends being what they are, my advice to Starbucks is to start work on another niche asap. Come to think of it, they already have, web-surfers.