I’m here to tell you that some of us still enjoy reading.
All the same, as a lifelong reader, writer, and bookstore owner (Sun Porch Books in Oak Bluffs, 2002 to 2008), I can’t believe the degree to which reading has fallen out of favor. I see it all around me, as buddies of mine make vague excuses for why they’ve fallen way, way behind in their consumption of books (or magazines, or cereal boxes). They make vague statements such as, “I dunno, I just don’t enjoy it anymore, and erg umm erg umm erg umm” (that’s meant to approximate the vague statements part).
Now, you would think this detachment from books would affect seniors least. I mean, we’re the ones who grew up with public libraries seemingly on every corner, stashes of books in our early classrooms, as well as, once we reached high school and college, richly funded English departments. My own English department at UCLA in the late ’60s and early ’70s pumped fists, so to speak, with a library called Royce Hall, whose extravagantly tall building could have housed Chartres Cathedral without bending a structural support column. The acoustics from so big a pile of bricks yielded, when anyone squeaked out a chair from a table, an astonishingly loud noise that used to make this little wuss very nearly scream.
So what am I trying to say, amid this chatter about stifling screams? Well, this oldie generation grew up with literature the way ancient Romans learned to slip into a side room to vomit after their first seven courses of any given meal. So just the way you’d answer the question, “Did ancient Romans create early dieting techniques?” you’d have to say, “No way!” and in the same manner, questions about baby boomers losing a love for the printed word occasion a heartfelt “NOOOO!”
And yet, that’s not the case. Recent findings from Pew Research reveal that only 68 percent of those in the 65-and-older category still enjoy reading. Now this might sound like a high amount, but it’s the lowest of all the age categories. To wit, the highest are those in high school and college, the third highest in the 30- to 39-year-old subgroup. And we’re last. Dead last. And that’s not a pun.
This seems to fly in the face of all the great mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits derived from reading by us elders, such as *improving memory, *providing stress release, *better sleep, and — hang on to your hats for this one! —*lowering risk for dementia. Hey! Pass me that 10-pound edition of “War and Peace”! Actually, mea culpa, but back when I was about 14 years old, I tried reading “War and Peace,” could only relate to the festive scenes such as Natasha waltzing with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and skipped all the battle stuff about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. I admit now, so many decades later, that I read only “Peace.” Time to go back? Well, let me just finish up all the fun fiction I’ve got on my coffee table, such as “Jane Austen in Boca” by English professor and chick lit author Paula Marantz Cohen.
And here’s why so many of us have dropped out of our age-old love of books. A big factor is vision-reducing eye disease. Well, hear, hear! Many of us struggle to find reading glasses strong enough to aid a literary renewal like the parting of the Red Sea. And here’s what Pew suggests for help: digital reading with well-lit screens, large-print books, clip-on book lights, and magnifying tools.
By the way, about digital reading as a fix-all: Some of us frail old readers simply cop to a continuing love of books themselves. We want to run our fingers through those pages, and enjoy the glamor of an honest-to-God cover, whether hard or paper. It’s how we are, just the way real skiers, unlike digital gaming skiers, adore the swoosh and sloosh of real snow.
OK, another obstacle to reading for us oldies-but-goodies is how hard it may have become to actually hold a book. To accommodate us, there are plenty of devices to suspend a book in front of our faces, let’s say at night in bed, including resting the wretched weighty object on a simple pillow. And I have my own, again, quirky little story: I’ve had to avoid, as much as I long to read them, Hilary Mantel’s massive tomes about the Tudor period of England, as written in her three-part bestselling Wolf Hall Trilogy. Each one is just too long and fat, and too heavy. One’s wrists would start to pop and crackle. And here is a perfect example of where a digital edition could bring Mantel’s saga to my own beady eyes. And, OK, I might go there. Just not yet.
And finally, a hindrance to reading for elders is cognitive and mental changes. Well, it’s hard to imagine famous dumbbells such as a certain candidate for president sinking his failing IQ capacity into, let us just say for clarity, “War and Peace.”
On the other hand, if we haven’t completely lost it yet — lost it as in brain power — then keeping up the effort will protect us from that dreaded collapse.
Maybe it’s time for me to read, once and for all, “War”? Tolstoy’s, not any actual war firsthand in our world!