Thursday, November 16, 2006
What motivates people to read?
I've lost so much weight since opening the bookshop, that yesterday my wedding ring flew off whilst throwing a football to Alex in the garden. Cue hunting for the proverbial needle in a haystack, only in this case it was a gold ring in a pile of yellow/brown sycamore leaves, which our garden is full of. Nightmare. Alex enjoyed this game for about, ooh, 5 minutes, but with my increasing frustration and muttered swearing, he quickly wanted to go back inside and watch Little Red Tractor. 'How to motivate a toddler' is something that parents get pretty good at, so I quickly explained to him the (rudimentary) plot outline of Lord of The Rings, and - armed with his sword "Sting" (i.e. a stick) - we set out on our quest. Half an hour later, having slayed a few orcs, and with me beginning to look a bit like Gollum (it's a bit muddy out the back) we spotted it sitting in a patch of earth. Happy Dad, quest over, chocolate biscuits all round. I'm not sure whether this event will give him a lifelong thing about Tolkien (not that he'll need much prodding I feel once he gets older) but it did get me thinking about what motivates people to read (as well as the possibility of publishing my own "bookshop diet" book). Since we opened, we get a lot of questions from concerned parents and grandparents about book suggestions for children, either because they are precocious in their reading ability, or - more often - they seem not to be interested in reading at all. This may also be causing problems at school. They feel - rightly or wrongly - that the right type of book might provide the inspirations and motivation to get back into reading. It seems a tall order for even the best fiction to achieve this. Often books need to be read 'at the right time'. I used to think it was better to ask a few questions, find out what motivated the boy or girl generally, etc. If you find out what their interests are, or what else they've enjoyed, a book may practically leap off the shelves that sounds ideal. A particular character may suggest themselves. It may be Holden Caulfield, or Captain Underpants. It doesn't really matter as long as the book and its characters will make a connection when read. I'm coming to the conclusion that this approach also misses the point. It's not the book quality, but the delivery mechanism, that's at fault. If everyone else in the family loves books, then shoving more books at them is probably going to exacerbate the problem. This is especially true if their peer group think that books are 'uncool' (or, as one boy complained to me recently, "my friends all think that reading is gay"). I think at this point, you need the help of a mentor. Having an interested - yet detached - third-party intervening is often an important way we break out of ruts, and discover new things - or even see things in a new light. For teenagers - and teenage boys in particular - having appropriate mentors is an important part of developing independence, as well as growing into healthy adults. (There's a fantastic book by Steve Biddulph called "Raising Boys" - which we recommend a lot in the shop - which talks about the importance of mentors during the teenage years. It's well worth reading, especially if you have a son.) I think that we - as independent booksellers - can fulfill the role of mentor where books are concerned. If we know our stuff, and are not just pushing the bestsellers, we can sincerely recommend a book in terms different from the party line at home or school (e.g. how it made me feel, or why it was important to me). You've reframed the whole thing - a book is no longer a 'problem', but a potential source of new experiences and answers. This is selling at its finest - the sizzle, not the stake. Only in this case 'the sizzle' is a tantalising glimpse at a bigger, more adult world - something that will overcome peer pressure, and hopefully develop a love of reading for its own sake.