My parents both heavily encouraged my brother and I to read as we were growing up. Regular and frequent trips to the local library, and almost every gift-giving occasion resulting in at least a few books as presents. Dad built bookcases into several walls throughout the house, and I think we had at least one standalone bookshelf in every room (and hall!) in the house, except the half-bath. My folks read to us when we were too young to read and, even when things were financially tight, Mom somehow managed to scrape together enough for something when the Scholastic Book Club order sheet came home from school. I recall that Dad always had three or four books going at any given time; he kept one in the car, one in his briefcase and one next to his chair in the family room.
When a new couple moved in next door (I think when I was in my early teens) she was absolutely dumb-struck by seeing the bookcases in the family room. "I have never seen so many books in one place before!" I was incredulous because, though I had learned we had more books than most families, it certainly didn't even remotely compare with our small town local library, much less the awe-inspiring (to me at that age) one at the nearby community college. I assumed she MUST have meant "in a personal collection."
I've had a few people note to me at work how impressive it is that I read so much. Not immediate co-workers, just random folks who I see from time to time in the break room or wherever. They've said that they should read more but never have the time (or whatever the excuse du jour is) and how it's really great to see someone reading as much as I do. I don't think I read that much. Maybe for 30-45 minutes or so on my lunch hour three or four days a week. (This is not counting comics, obviously.) But apparently that was significant enough that it was noticed by people I don't know and note-worthy enough for them to comment on to a total stranger.
It was around that time that I saw Matt Blind comment on some reading statistics he had come across. A third of Americans don't read even one book a year. 40-ish percent of households (not individuals, mind you, but households) do not purchase ANY books. Two-thirds of Americans never set foot in a bookstore.
Given those stats (and some of the others like it that Blind references) it's not nearly as surprising that people are taken aback by someone who actually, you know, reads.
This weekend, I caught a bit of Bill Maher's latest Real Time in which he was dumbfounded by the fact that so many Americans just voted against their best interests. He posed the question to his panelists: "Why would people do that?" The short answer I quipped back to the screen -- but no one on the show managed to even touch on -- refers back to all those people who don't read. My answer, in it's entirety was: "Because Americans are idiots."
This country has long been enamored with the idea that we're powerful because we're bigger than everybody else. Physical prowess is what's honored here. So much so that it's become part of our culture to look down on intelligence. That's why the lowest paid athletes still bring home far more in their paycheck than what the most highly respected educators do. I've argued this last point at least since high school. But commentators like Maureen Dowd and Seth Godin have recently noted the trend worsening.
So here's what I'm going to suggest... READ. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read whenever you're able. I don't care what it is. Fiction or non-fiction, obscure or popular, old or current.... just READ. You get ideas from reading. You get your brain to think of things that you might not have thought of by yourself. You get to consider thoughts and opinions of people beyond yourself.
Unlike television, reading is an active medium. It engages you and your brain. It makes you focus on the ideas and their significance. You can't really just parrot a book's text as you can a talking head from the idiot box.
I know that our school system really discourages reading. (Despite lip service to the contrary.) I know you got through school and felt relieved that you never have to read another book ever again. But here's the beauty of reading for yourself: there will NEVER be a test on what you choose to read. If you skip over parts you don't care for, or put a book away unfinished, or just plain forgot half of it, IT DOESN'T MATTER. You take from a book what YOU find interesting and useful.
In public. Let other people see you read. All the time. Let people see you every day in the break room or on the train or at the airport or wherever you are. Let them see that reading is NOT just an aberration for you, but something that you actively choose do on a regular basis. Oh, it's totally old school passive-aggressive guilt, but if you do it enough, people do start feeling embarrassed that they don't read more. That's where those folks were coming from when they commented to me about it.
I'm not out here trying to save the book industry or anything like that. If book sales rise dramatically, that's awesome, but it's not where I'm coming from. I'm just tired of dealing with idiots all the time and want to raise the intellectual bar here a bit. Because that one-third of Americans who don't even read one book a year? That two-thirds that has never set foot in a bookstore? Those are the people electing our officials. And that should scare the shit out of you.