Plotting the readers’ return

readingThe very definition of reading has nowadays been extended to include newspaper reports, blogs and websites. Web-site ranking service lists local and international news portals as being among in the top 50 most-visited websites by the Maltese. Yet, we have no way of knowing how much time is spent engaging in actual reading, beyond the casual look at the headlines.

And of course, keeping up with the news and one’s favourite blogs while having a quick coffee-break does not yield quite the same benefits as the regular, committed reading of books.

Recent research carried out by Emory University, in the US, suggested that reading a book may cause biological changes in the brain which last even after the book is finished, as the mind is transported into the body of the protagonist.

Another study, carried out by psychologists at the New School for Social Research, New York, suggested that reading fiction improves our ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions. In other words, reading an honest-to-goodness novel stimulates the imagination and our capacity for empathy, among other things.

Chris Gruppetta, from Merlin Publishers, attributes the decrease in the popularity of books to “the buffet of alternative entertainment options available, and the endless time suck that is the internet”. He also blames movies and television series for having added to the need for “instant gratification in narrative and description”.

“We have less patience to sit through a 200-page novel, when we could watch the movie version in 90 minutes.”

The solution, he believes, lies in contemporary writing, and fresh packaging.

“I’ve never had any problems saying that packaging is important – books need to be seen to be cool. Having said that, no amount of glitter and make-up will cover up a clumsy, tired novel. Content is king.”

Asked whether in his experience there is such a thing as a typical reader, Gruppetta says that in actual fact the  diversification of readers is one of the successes achieved by the Maltese publishing scene in the past decade.

“Of course, there has always been the cliché of the typical reader (female, middle class, Chardonnay or cappuccino-sipping) but the wider range of literature being published locally has led to a much wider readership, not only in quantitative terms but also in the type of readers. For example, the introduction of action-based novels in Malta, such as Mark Camilleri’s Inspector Gallo series, has appealed to a male audience.

As for the benefits of reading books, Gruppetta pulls no punches.

“Reading takes me to a different world. Like movies do, only better because a book stays with you much longer. Reading gives access to emotions, situations, places that we would otherwise never encounter in our lives. I’ve just finished a book set in contemporary New York, and am reading another set in turn of the 20th-century Japan, with its creeping westernisation and geisha districts. And meanwhile I’m also in rural France in a village of murderers and sex addicts. And, thanks to an as-yet unpublished manuscript I’m reading right now, I’m also in Rio in 2061. Exciting times.”

Read all about the demise of public libraries here. An edited version of this report was published on The Sunday Times of Malta.