Sustaining reading, writing and books – easier read than done?

One of the common threads amongst the various avatars I don is that of interviewer. As I speak to various candidates to gauge their ‘fit’ for the position to be filled, I usually ask them ‘What books do you read?’

The last interviewee I spoke to very hesitatingly blurted out that she loved the Harry Potter series. I was delighted…here was a reader, a fellow imagineer! She is definitely one among a vanishing tribe, as we move en masse to more ‘visual’ forms of entertainment/imbibing knowledge. There’s something about a fellow reader that sparks an interest – for me, it usually means they love stories, recognise good writing and have a yen for language. These are super skills – essential for many content creation roles, and allied roles in marketing or communications. Many voracious readers are also above-average communicators, an essential trait of managers and leaders. The converse is definitely true – all leaders I’ve met and interacted with read voraciously.

That brings me to the topic of this blog – just what is happening to readership in general? My kids’ generation is certainly not reading as much as we did, although they consume huge amounts of content via various digital formats. Heck, many of us don’t find the time to finish a book most of the time – leading to ‘tsundoku’ piles of unread books. Books are cheaper and more available, and the big libraries are still around although they’re rapidly transforming into hybrid centers of content. The small ‘circulating libraries’ that my generation frequented and borrowed books at 2 rs per day have vanished – as have alarm clocks, ‘video libraries’, analog wrist watches and a host of other late 20th century gadgetry – but that’s a topic for another blog.

To go beyond subjective nostalgia, I decided to do a little secondary research into this. I discovered that book readership is indeed falling across countries – global book sales have slumped post-pandemic after a strong surge during the pandemic. Total book reading has fallen significantly in countries such as the US where the National Endowment for the Arts is tracking such data.

Much of this data seems to be about physical books though – 83% of Gen Z (the generation born between 1998 and 2015) go online to get their fix of webnovels, e-books, and webcomics of diverse hues. This is in contrast to 51% of the older generation using their phones to read. It’s evident that the era of reading purely paper books is firmly in the rear mirror – has been for a decade or two now.

Yet, various forms of books – fiction, faction and everything in between are being written furiously. Book fairs, festivals and events are doing rip roaring business. Books are often the cherry on the marketing pie for many thought leaders and celebrities. An industry of ghostwriters can put together books from talks, blogs or even keywords – this is the way it has been done for millenia anyway! However, the key difference today is that we’re drowning in an ocean of books – they are literally falling from the overloaded shelves.

What is sustaining this boom? I don’t have many answers, but a subjective hypothesis that many silent readers lurk – our tribe may be thinner on the ground, but they’re still around, and they’re lapping up the books. Albeit, many tsundokus may be getting built, but that’s ok, in my opinion, because they sustain writers and the book industry.

What about writing? Writing is certainly an essential skill for success in college and higher education – and as Stephen King famously said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: Read a lot and write a lot.” What does this even mean in the age of AI though, when ChatGPT and other avatars can complete stories, correct your mistakes, and even write original fiction? Is the era of ‘pure writing’ over, similar to that of pure reading?

While I’ve railed against the onslaught of AI in other blogs, I’ve come to recognize that AI is embedding itself into the pantheon of tools we use as content creators. So writing will continue, aided by AI story generators, ideators and correctors. Perhaps, movies and immersive content, and even books shall be created from AI-generated stories.

Readers are after all, a certain type of content consumers. The coming generations of content consumers will not mind, or even care where the stories will originate. They may consume the stories in immersive AR/VR environments, or even via chips embedded in their brains. They may experience stories in ways we never imagined. Imagine walking along the dark corridor besides Mrs. Danvers as she shows you Rebecca’s bedroom. Or flying on the Pushpaka Vimana with Ravana as he kidnaps Seetha. What if you experienced the Mars landing with Dr. Watney? This is a rollercoaster most of us never imagined getting on!

That, though, is the crux of this whole thing. Stories written by humans and read by other humans create a bond of imagination. What Stephen King or Daphne DuMaurier or Maharishi Valmiki imagined grips me today, grips me now. We – the reader and the writer – form an inviolable bridge where his words provoke my imagination. What does this mean when the story originates from a machine, and the machine ‘paints’ the scene for me – in glorious technicolor? Where does that leave MY imagination? Do I even want to form such a bond with a machine?

I end where I started – with more questions. There is an ancient wish/curse attributed to the Chinese that says ‘May you live in interesting times’. We certainly do, don’t we?!

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