IVP - Behind the Books - [Question] Junot Díaz on Creating a Reading Public

February 26, 2013

[Question] Junot Díaz on Creating a Reading Public

There are some periodicals that are so good that I fall way behind — because they're so good I don't want to skim or skip or unsubscribe. Currently I'm about three years behind with National Geographic, even longer with McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, and I don't even want to think about Books & Culture.

Maybe you can sympathize. But anyway, that's neither here nor there — other than explaining why I'm about to quote you a passage from McSweeney's #33, which dates from 2009. It's an old issue, but I just finished it this weekend.


In an interview with Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the question comes up about the future of writing and literature. He takes the question beyond writing alone, keeping an eye on the whole ecosystem of literature — which of course includes readers:

My sense of it is just that we desperately, desperately, desperately need more stories…. But we also have to simultaneously encourage readers. It's sad if a program…encourages writers but not readers. I sometimes think we're doing a better job at creating writers of color than readers of color. And that's what worries me — that I'm going to have twenty-five writers of color fighting for a person who's only going to buy one of their books. We've got to do a better job creating a reading public…. I just hope we've created enough readers that when the book club meets up it's not just me and you.

— "Junot Díaz in Conversation with Dave Eggers," McSweeney's Quarterly Concern 33 (2009), "Panorama Book Review" section, p. 73.

In context Díaz and Eggers are talking about writers and readers of color, but I don't think there are many demographics that can consider themselves safe when it comes to an unshaken culture of readership these days. (Or am I wrong? Are there?)

So slice up this question however you like: readers of color or of faith or from your region — in whatever terms you envision — and I'd love to hear your ideas about how to get where Díaz points us.

What are we doing these days, and what more could we be doing, to encourage readers in this day and age? Where have you seen bright spots, fertile nurseries of readers-in-the-making? What ideas do you have to multiply such incubators and make them even more fruitful?

Will you kindly share your thoughts?

Posted by Jon Boyd at February 26, 2013 8:10 AM Bookmark and Share


David, These questions are ones that I am very interested in as the editor of a book review... ;)

I am hopeful that church congregations can be exactly this type of "fertile nurseries of readers-in-the-making"... Obviously the task of reading the biblical text is crucial for churches, but to do that well IMO and to interpret it for our own particular neighborhoods, we need to be reading (and discussing books) broadly: ecology, economics, ethics, farming, art, sociology, history, culture, etc, etc.

Comment by: Chris Smith at February 26, 2013 9:34 AM

Sorry, I just now saw that Jon was the author of the post, not David... (I found the post through David Zimmerman's FB page...)

Comment by: Chris Smith at February 26, 2013 9:35 AM

The headwinds are fierce in the info-blizzard that comes at us every day. The competition for our time is becoming more intense as lives become more complicated and disjointed. This is reflected in all areas of popular culture - "literature," movies, music, sports, etc. Screen Lawrence of Arabia today - notice how every scene is a work of art, crafted with brilliantly written and delivered dialogue, lit and framed beautifully and artfully. Would it be a blockbuster in our culture today? I doubt it. Then look at Fast and Furious (oh, lets say) V - The frenetic short attention-span editing, staccato dialogue and seizure-inducing lighting- a hit made for our times. How does the written word compete against this without our culture reverting back to simpler times i.e. before TV, cable, internet, etc. when an evening read beckoned one's attention?
I guess I'm just trying to define the parameters of the question/problem here before focusing an a solution. But it seems like another cultural shift might be the only thing that could affect this dynamic. And the question remains - how to effect such change? You're right Jon - we need group wisdom here.

Comment by: Stephen Brown at February 26, 2013 9:51 AM

I think that you ask a fantastic question. I am afraid, however, that the audience here will most likely not provide you with the answer. The platform from which it is being presented, addresses an audience that DOES devote time to reading. That being said--I will speak for the uneducated masses and the working class-as I am one of them. I cling to the written word, and attempt to devote time to reading every day-whether it be the Bible, a trade magazine or whichever piece of literature I am determined to attack that rests on my nightstand at the moment. Stephen is dead-on with his references to social media and the trained ever-shortening attention span of our global society. This develops problems much deeper than reading alone-which is why the question and following conversation caught my eye. It is something that we (the people on the street so to speak) address frequently in our conversations. I have found that most people I meet (this spans age/demographics/gender)lack any intrinsic motivation. The average person requires significant external motivation and group participation to acheive much of anything. Therefore, John Q Public picking up a book on his own and finding the motivation to read it on his own, is ever decreasing. The tragic caviat to that, is that with the ever developing cyber world that has practically erased any need for us to spend much time out in society actually physically interacting with people, and the economy which has created a large group of us who work dawn to dusk and have litle funds for extra curricular activities---we are presented with a society of people who require, or benefit from group interaction to rise above the menial tasks of daily living--and yet are practically devoid of any of said interaction in their lives. Where I see potential for resolution, is by continuing to foster group interaction. The harvest for a return to reading, critical thinking, open and stimulating conversation and on a larger scale--hope for any future progress as a society; will come only from encouraging people of all kinds, all ages, all means; to get together in structured and non structured gatherings. Coffee shops, Churches, Local Community Groups, and BOOK CLUBS. I still find the old format of book clubs to be fantastically successful at bringing people together, and encouraging them to read. The need for people to feel that they are "sharing" and being "part" of something larger is key today. Everyone wants to know how many other people "liked" what they liked on FB. Anyone will comment on a Meme that someone else posts. By presenting reading material in a group session with a leader that poses topics for discussion, and a catalyst for re-teaching conversation beyond "like", I think you will see that reading can set fire to the prairies of dry readership quickly. Best of luck.

Comment by: Cathy Buss at February 26, 2013 10:18 AM

I didn't enjoy reading the Bible until people walked me through understanding it. I didn't like poetry until I had poetry read to me and patiently explained to me. I didn't have questions until I heard other people's questions.... Reading (and thinking) is definitely an acquired taste. I think it needs to happen person-to-person - and that takes time.

In my church (and neighborhood, but church especially) so many people seem too busy 'doing good things' to sit down and read thoughtfully, or discuss or digest what they've read. Not quite sure how to change that, beyond trying to raise my own kids to be readers and thinkers...

Comment by: kelly at February 26, 2013 10:34 AM

Confirmation^from Kelly

Comment by: Cathy Buss at February 26, 2013 10:39 AM

Kelly, or maybe we also need to be addressing the problems that you identify... What is the cost of this busyness (even the busyness of doing good things)? How do we make space and time for being with and helping each other to grow and todevelop practices of reading/ reflection/ conversation that are essential for our the life and well-being of our churches?

Seems like IVP has a book coming (eventually) on SLOW CHURCH that reflects on questions like these... ;) http://slowchurch.com

Comment by: Chris Smith at February 26, 2013 10:45 AM

Chris, Slow Church appears that it will address the issue-at the very least at church level. It is imperitive that any organization seeking to bolster interest and involvement strike while the proverbial iron is hot. Desperate times have created a society of peoples searching for meaning, purpose, direction, and support. Once the economy improves, we will return to our previous state of Lazy Boy chair, Television Sit-com and Fast Food induced stupor that is a mind numbing side effect of a succesful modern society. God speed :)

Comment by: Cathy Buss at February 26, 2013 10:57 AM

I tweeted this, but I am not sure the question needs to be asked. Because we are a more literate culture than ever in history. More books are published now than ever before. A large portion of the society spends much of their day reading every day.

So at the base, the question on how to make a more literate culture is answered by teaching people to read. For all of the problems of the education system, we have more graduates than every, with better reading levels and doing more reading.

We can complain about what people are reading. But that is a complaint about culture, not about reading. It is the same as complaining about people watching reality tv instead of documentaries.

Many people do read intellectually stimulating books (and watch documentaries.) Or on the story side, since that is what the question was really talking about, there are millions of people reading stories.

Poetry is down, and that I do think is because poetry is more opaque and requires more time to understand and analyze. Our culture values quick synthesis, which is a particular type of reading (more blog and reaction than poetry.) I am not denying some things are lost when you value quick synthesis over long reflection. But I think we need to clarify our question and get at what you really want before you can really answer it properly.

Comment by: Adam Shields at February 26, 2013 12:14 PM

Adam, The points you raise are good ones... I've been talking recently about work, and how at the present in Western Culture, we --generally speaking-- are both overworked and persistently try to avoid work (or at least certain types of work).

I think a similar thing could be true about reading. More people are reading than ever, but our reading is more and more fragmented. Maybe I'm reading too much into Diaz's notion of a "reading public," but what we're missing is more the public, than the reading, the sort of narrative that joins our personal reading with that of others, in a way that benefits the public, the common good.

Comment by: Chris Smith at February 26, 2013 1:53 PM

Adam, I'm going to reply to your comment first, since you're most recent and seem most bothered by this post.

At its simplest, my response is to draw your attention to the question(s) I posed, since they're ones you say don't need to be asked. I can't help wondering whether you've inverted them from the positive form I posed them in. I did not ask, "How come readership is down?" Check it out:

"What are we doing these days, and what more could we be doing, to encourage readers in this day and age? Where have you seen bright spots, fertile nurseries of readers-in-the-making? What ideas do you have to multiply such incubators and make them even more fruitful?"

Do you really think we're not doing anything to encourage readers? And that there's nothing more we could be doing? And that there are no bright spots, no fertile nurseries? And you have no ideas to make them more fruitful?

Maybe you think we aren't, and there isn't, and you don't — and if so, I'm not sure I can disagree with you.

But secondly, you seem to equate literacy with readership. I may not have said enough about what I mean by "readership" in this post, but "literacy" ain't it. :) (Nor, do I believe, is that what Díaz meant.)

I (and probably you) move in highly literate circles, but I know loads of perfectly literate people who are not readers — that is, people who could be characterized by their intentional, volitional, and ongoing embrace of reading. (People like Cathy, who commented above.) That's the kind of readership that takes nurturing (as Kelly commented), because reading is not a natural act, even for humans. And it was that nurturing that I'm interested to hear more about from y'all.

Maybe you've seen some of those "bright spots," places where readers (in the more-than-literate sense I have in mind) are being formed? I'd love to hear about them.

Comment by: Jon at February 26, 2013 2:33 PM

Chris: I like your putting the "public" back in "reading public"!

Comment by: Jon at February 26, 2013 2:36 PM

Jon, in as much as I personally do not enjoy the e-book format--you are on the right track. It is ONE of the very positive ways readership is and will continue increasing. Various sectors are positively influenced to read via this format. In my experience, Truckers--anyone who travels extensively for a living has recently been able to enjoy much more time reading and reading a broader range of material thanks to venues like Kindle etc...These people benefit from the potability of the e-books, and the accessability to purchasing them. Amongst my friends for whom English is not their first language, e-books offer a format that is easily translated in sections that become cumbersome or too technical. For the younger generations that are tech savy and on the move--the format is certainly preferable--and "shareable" which is such an important quality amongst these people who thrive on joint appreciation. Beyond the E-Books, Book clubs, coffee shops, philosophy clubs etc...are very popular right now. Whether it be specifically a book club, or not--a BOOK is usually used as a point of discussion, learning, or entertainment. I have friends that lead music appreciation groups, war history groups, philosophy groups and religion groups that all utilize books in print or e-books as part of their format. They are growing in attendance and popularity--and it is exciting to see the birth of new generations and new factions of "readers" across the globe. Keep up the good work--continue to present us with new menu items for our hungry minds and never cease to seek a way to better what you do.

Comment by: Cathy Buss at February 26, 2013 2:51 PM

I know this is in a different vein from some of the other comments, but I think cultivating phenomenal editors will be one way to encourage readers.

As it becomes easier and easier to self-publish and the number of words being hurled at the public increases exponentially, the barriers to readership grow higher and higher. Poorly edited works frustrate readers. Writing that has been edited well will stand out.

I know this won't solve the problem. But I think it's part of the solution.

Comment by: Steve Tamayo at February 26, 2013 3:05 PM

Jon, I know that you don't want to equate literate with readers, but I think it is hard not to equate them. At the very least you cannot have readers without having literate people.

I think what you want to ask is "how can we encourage thinking readers"? I am still a bit uncomfortable with the cultural assumptions by that, but I think it is a clearer question.

First I think you have to have a culture that values ideas. If we don't have a Christian culture that values that ideas then thinkers won't be a part of them whether they are readers or not.

Then you have to make it a place where ideas are traded. I think book groups are probably the default method of small group study for Evangelicals. And while many of those are not incredibly high level discussion groups, they are discussion groups.

And then you need to value expert opinion. If everyone's opinion is equally valid (I am not saying equally heard, all should be equally heard, I am saying equally valid), then you are implicitly asserting that ideas don't matter.

My assertion (without a lot of facts to back it up) is that Evangelical culture probably values thinking readers as much as any other religious community. There is always more than can be done, but that has to be balanced against all of the other things that need to be done in Christian community.

On the whole, I would say it pretty far down the list.

Comment by: Adam Shields at February 26, 2013 3:07 PM

Cathy: I love your observations about truckers and travelers, and it's cool to hear about the variety of book clubs you and your friends are involved with! It's revealing to hear that the basic format works across that whole range.

By the way, I know I talk about ebooks a lot here on the blog, but I don't really mean to push them, or make it sound as if InterVarsity Press is ebook-centric. Our readers buy roughly 10 print books for every 1 ebook (though that ratio is continuing to tip), and even I, ebook geek that I am, read off paper more than half the time. :) Print books aren't going anywhere.

Yo, Steve! (Great blog title!) I know our editorial staff at IVP would be gratified to hear your idea about editors — so I'll be sure to pass it around. You may be right that well-edited books intrinsically nurture readers. Kind of like pulling all the rocks out of the garden, huh? :)

I hear a common thread in several of y'all's comments. We each probably have particular communities in mind with this question, but it's the ways readership can go beyond any one community, and even knit different ones together, that's an interesting thread here. I don't know about you, but that's very exciting to me!

The other day, riding the "L" here in Chicago, I sat next to a ten-year-old boy who spent the entire 40+-minute ride completely engrossed in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. He's joining this diverse family of people who love to read, and seeing that was one of the highlights of my week.

Comment by: Jon at February 27, 2013 10:48 AM

Comments are closed for this entry.

Get Email Updates

You'll get an email whenever a new entry is posted to Behind the Books

Subscribe to Feeds

Got a Book Idea?

Please follow our submissions guidelines. We cannot respond to book proposals or inquiries within the context of this blog.