Monday, October 13, 2008

Should We Do More to Celebrate Reading, Books and Authors?

There are fewer and fewer reviews of books in magazines and newspapers. In fact, on many newspaper websites, if you click on the navigation button marked "Entertainment" there is no subsequent section for "books." Oh, sure, there are reviews of music, movies, TV shows, restaurants and gadgets, but you often can't find anything about good ol' books. I'm afraid that throughout the popular culture books have slipped into an unseemly "also ran" category.

In relation to this decline, I've been thinking about books, authors and celebrities. This country has a few celebrity authors. A few. We could really use more. Perhaps there are so few because authors tend to be bookish, quiet types who spend their days with their noses in either a book or a keyboard—and they have that look about them. But not all authors. Some are sharp dressers, articulate, interesting. And authors used to be considered celebrities in this country, even when I was a kid I remember authors appearing on daytime talk shows and on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But do enough people care about books for the media to pay attention to authors? I don't think the media thinks so.

Publishers have figured out that it's easier to pluck a celebrity off the pages of People magazine and have them pen a book, than to turn an author into a celebrity—after all, the hard part about becoming famous has already been done! Anybody read Pamela Anderson's latest novel? Sadly, the book itself has become an afterthought, the media attention is what's really important. Rightly or wrongly, the technique works and publishers, after all, are in the business of moving books, and if celebrities move books, they're good for business. We live in a celebrity culture, not a book culture.

At one of my book signings, an earnest woman told me she LOVED children's books. She then proceeded to tell me without a hint of irony that she had "all of Madonna's books." Good for her.

But there are things that work to bring attention to books. These things should be studied carefully, because they make books relevant again. Oprah's Book Club is a force for literacy, no argument there. Many women belong to social book clubs, which I'm sure account for millions of book sales a year. Movies based on books also help spur interest in the original source material. And things like the National Book Festival held every year in Washington, D.C. are great ways to celebrate books and make authors celebrities once again.

The point is, there are things that can be done to champion books and reading in the media and in the culture at large. Maybe we just need a task force to study these issues and work up a list of proposals, initiatives and plans. Then the question becomes: what celebrity can we get to head up such a committee?