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Golis: Finding ourselves in books


A decade ago, I wrote a column asking readers to recommend books to revive my interest in reading serious novels. And two things happened:

First, readers proved amazing and generous in their responses. Friends showed up at my house with their favorite novels and brought them to parties I attended. Suggestions and comments from more than 100 people became fodder for an online conversation and a second column.

Second, I was invited to join a monthly book club, a surprise that would become a happy addition to my life. Since then, our club has read more than 100 novels — not bad for a guy whose reading table was once littered with books on politics, computers and travel (and not a novel in sight).

We've read old and new novels, classic and contemporary, the great and the not-so-great — from Cervantes' "Don Quixote" to Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," from Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" to Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending" to Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch."

Not all of these books were universally praised. But every book kickstarted conversations about the past and present, about how people live and about how novels make us think about our own lives.

In fiction, we are asked to consider the human condition in all its forms — the meaning of love or beauty or courage or madness, the politics of race or gender or class, the context of time and place.

These provoke the kind of thoughtful, direct, serious and occasionally irreverent conversations that seldom happen in the rush of everyday life.

I should mention that we are a rare species — an all-male book club. Some suspected the group wouldn't survive the members' competitive impulses, but here we are.

My original column focused on the decline of reading among Americans, as measured in a 2002 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Not much has changed. In its latest, 2012 study, the NEA found that slightly less than half of all Americans (46.9 percent) had read a novel, short story, poem or play in the previous year. (In 2002, the figure was 46.6 percent). Only 36 percent of American males read a work of literature in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Internet and television have sped up our world in more ways than we can count. Under the influence of the iPad and the Kindle, reading, retailing and publishing have been forever changed. For some, the pleasures of wandering a book store have been lost to the sterile convenience of downloading.

In January, the Pew Research Center reported that 28 percent of Americans had read an e-book in the past year. (The same report found that 24 percent of Americans hadn't read a book of any kind in the past year, which was triple the number of non-readers counted in 1978.)

And be warned. According to a Washington Post story last week, neuroscientists now worry that the way we scan the blur of online content is rewiring our brains, short-circuiting the cognitive skills required for reading comprehension. We are left to worry that if we can't slow down, the rewards available from serious fiction will be lost to us.

When I wrote the first column, I was worried that my inability to engage with novels would leave me less educated and less empathetic. "When people don't take the time to engage a book," I wrote, "they surrender an opportunity to contemplate life in all of its meanings and to learn about themselves and the world in which they live."

There is plenty of research to support that belief. In November, the New Yorker cited studies in the U.S. and the Netherlands that showed people who read literary fiction are more empathetic. In January, Psychology Today reported that neuroscientists found that reading a novel can increase brain function.

When I asked readers to help restart my interest in literature, I learned something else: People read for the joy of making friends with a good story.

"I realize," wrote one reader, "that you wanted one novel that would inspire you to read more, but, alas, that is tantamount to asking me to name my favorite child."

Said another: "The only place I go without a book is the shower. Were they waterproof, that exception would cease." He added that he owns 15,000 books, and he carries a collection of Shakespeare in his car.

What novel was named by more readers than any other? John Steinbeck's story of the Great Depression, "The Grapes of Wrath."

I sometimes wonder if my own reading customs would have improved without the responsibilities and friendships that came with a book club.

What I know for sure is that the world is changing at a rate that is difficult to comprehend. As a society, we are breathless, sometimes confused, too often angry.

If we wish to step back and reflect on how the pace of change is affecting us, a few hours with a good novel might be the place to start.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>