What are you giving her to read?

In July I attended the Romance Writers of America (RWA)’s 2015 conference in New York City, and as I reflect on that experience, I’m reminded of a scene from the movie A League of Their Own. If you’re unfamiliar with the film, it’s about the first female professional baseball league.

Setting: The bus of one of the league’s teams, the Rockford Peaches

Characters: Mae, Shirley, Evelyn

Mae [helping Shirley learn to read]: Sound it out…

Shirley: Kimm…

Mae: Kimono.

Shirley: Kimono, kimono. Off. And. Gr – Gra – Grabb”d.

Mae: Grabbed.

Shirley: Her. M – mi – mil – mil – milky, milky. White, white. Milky white.

Evelyn:  Mae. What are you giving her to read?

Mae: Oh, what the difference does it make? She’s reading, okay? That’s the important thing. Now go away, go, shoo, shoo. Go ahead, Shirley, you’re doing good.

Shirley: Thanks, Mae. Milky white bre – breasts.

[Gives Mae a surprised look]

Mae: It gets really good after that. Look. The delivery boy walks in…

What does this have to do with the RWA conference? The answer is a two-parter.

Part one: Each year the RWA holds its Readers for Life literacy signing during the conference. Hundreds of authors sign books for two hours; fans (conference attendees and the public) get to meet and chat with their favorite writers. All the profits from the book sales are donated to literacy organizations; since 1990 over $900,000 have been raised.  The need for literacy programming continues to rise as funding for such programming decreases. Thirty-six million Americans read below a third-grade level; sixteen percent of the world’s population are non-literate (two-thirds of these are women). The inability to read is, I believe, life-threatening: health, socioeconomic status, and political and personal freedom are likely to decline for the non-literate. Imagine being unable to read the directions on a bottle of medicine or a sign deeming water unfit for human consumption,  fill out a job application, make use of a bus or train schedule, or be able to vote or understand one’s rights. The movie character Shirley finished  league tryouts but couldn’t find her name on a team roster; another player found Shirley’s name, and a new teammate would eventually teach her to read.

I’d like to applaud the writers of RWA for making such a significant contribution to increasing literacy rates worldwide and bringing greater awareness to the problem.  RWA authors make readers through their generosity, but they also make readers through their novels and stories. And yet romance writers are often considered to be “lesser” writers, their stories less significant and their prose less skillful than those of writers in other genres. I’ve heard romance writers recount such comments as “Oh, you’re just a romance writer” and “I see. You write ROMANCES [insert disdainful tone here].” Here’s a confession: before I began to work with authors of romances, I had a similar attitude. I have since been schooled by authors who write engaging stories and create captivating worlds (both realistic and fantastical) and characters. I’ve also read prose that is impeccable in mechanics and flow.  Romance as a genre has so many subgenres that it’s impractical to list them here. The “We need diverse romances” movement encourages books that reflect society more accurately and the authors who write them.  Romances featuring African American, Asian, biracial, and LGBTQ characters are growing in number.  There are Young Adult and Christian subgenres. There truly is something for everyone in the genre, and its readership continues to expand.

And that leads to part two.  People are reading. In 2013 romance had an annual total sales value of $1.08 billion and a 13 percent share of adult fiction (statistics available at www.rwa.org).  Just as romance authors are undeserving of “lesser” status, so are romance readers.  In all genres there are great books and not-so-great books, and we are free to select those that pique our interest. One person’s great book is another’s not-great-book and vice versa.

They’re reading, ok?

Paper or Plastic?

I haven’t heard this question in years, even when I forget my reusable grocery bags. Why ask it here? It’s my image of the eBook-hard copy debate (by hard copy I mean a book in its traditional form, be it paperback or hardcover). I really am not a Luddite, as I use technology when it suits me, but I resisted getting an eReader for years. I could think of very few ways in which a reader surpasses a book, and I even secretly feared that the device’s rise would destroy one of my guilty pleasures. Bookstores have long been sources of comfort when I’ve been upset: I’ll go to one and wander among the shelves for a while, usually coming out with a few consolation prizes. I even worked in a bookstore during a particularly difficult time in my life. Yes, I spent most of my pay on books. There’s something about touching a physical book, pulling it off the shelf, examining the cover, skimming a few pages, taking in the design of the pages, enjoying the weight and feel of the paper that I don’t think I could live without. This physical enjoyment carries over into the actual reading of a hard copy book.

One day I finally discovered a compelling reason to buy an eReader—the ability to carry a huge number of books with me when I traveled. Now I’d be able to easily switch books if one I began didn’t suit my mood. I wouldn’t have to drag a nearly overweight bag around and deal with the occasional luggage searches (apparently if you put a number of books side by side in the bottom of a suitcase it makes a dense mass that can’t be easily “read” by a bag screener). I suspect my husband appreciates my mom’s gift of a new reader with a built-in light as much as I do. He finds it much less annoying at night than my leaving the lamp on to read myself to sleep. Now that I’ve put a reader app on my phone I’m never without a book, be it waiting in line or in the doctor’s office.

All that said, I still prefer hard copy books, not just for their weight and “feel,” but also for their design. Most of the books I’ve downloaded lack the variation in fonts, formatting, and chapter design that contribute to the art of a book. There’s a generic blandness to eBooks that awaits transformation. I don’t think that eBooks will ever completely replace books, and I hope they never will. And I still annoy my husband at night—“I just want to finish this chapter, and I don’t have this on my reader.” I want my real book.

More on the paper or plastic debate and editing later.

Thanks Mom!

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a book (or two or twenty) at hand. I am a bibliophile, and it’s all my mother’s fault.

Every time we went to the grocery store, our first stop was a rack of Little Golden Books. Mom would select one for me to look at as I sat in the basket of our cart, and I’d flip through the pages over and over again until we were home and she could sit down and read it to me. One day, I started reading aloud in the grocery aisle. Mom thought I’d memorized the text until she realized that she’d just given me this book a few aisles over.

Although I developed a lot of impolite habits, like reading at the table during restaurant meals, finding a hiding place to read so I wouldn’t be sent outside to play with the other kids, and staying up past my bedtime to read a few more pages, Mom never refused my requests for books. Sometimes she limited my selections to one, though. As I grew older, one of my holiday gifts was a trip to the bookstore to select books that would be wrapped and put away until the particular day of gift giving. Mom pretended that she didn’t know I unwrapped them, read them, and then rewrapped them.

I’ve shared my obsession with my own kids, reading to them long after they could read for themselves. I’ll never forget, and I hope they won’t either, reading the Harry Potter series together and making up voices for the different characters. My Dobby is vastly superior to the movie version.

So why a “Thanks Mom” as my first blog post? Mom encouraged my love affair with books, and that’s led me to a career that I enjoy. How much of a “job” can it be if I get to read every day?

P.S.

Tragically, my Little Golden Books were destroyed when our basement flooded. Mom did give me a new Kindle recently, though. More on the latter in the future.