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By Jack Ganssle

 

Reading? Bah, Humbug.

Published 9/07/2001

USA Today - my least favorite newspaper in the world, but the one most hotels insist on dropping before each door, this week polled readers and found that 43% of American men haven't read a book in the last six months. Women fare better, with only 29% reaching for the remote control rather than some weighty tome.

I was appalled.

In one of those weird juxtapositions this poll appeared the same day I was doing a book-signing at the 2001 Boston Embedded Systems Conference. The CMP booth was awash in visitors greedily pawing through stacks of books targeted at embedded developers. None would be considered "an easy read"; these are all textbooks, more or less, filled with the arcania of our business. And they're not cheap, with prices ranging from $50 to twice that. Yet the credit cards flew as the shelves emptied.

I challenged the visitors. Do they actually read these purchases or are they just shelf litter? Most claimed to study much of each book, though they usually admitted that they rarely read a technical book from cover to cover. That's pretty understandable: engineers look for solutions to problems, extracting what's needed and then moving on.

Tom DeMarco, noted software guru and author, moans that "software people don't read". I don't know if this is just a complaint from someone whose living depends on book sales, or if it's an industry truism. Yet there's been a flood of books about software engineering; surely someone is reading this stuff?

Bookstores have enjoyed an impressive resurgence. Borders, Barnes & Noble, and of course Amazon.com all are megaliths that pander to the nation's reading. Or, at least buying. Critics complain that these have replaced the eclectic local bookstore. A sad loss, for sure. The little place across the street from me failed a few months ago, removing something wonderful from my neighborhood. Now it's a 15 minute dingy ride to the closest store in Baltimore, which of course is a Barnes & Noble. Which is of course part of an ESPN Zone complex, giving the odd mix of library-like entertainment with pounding audio-visual stimulation.

Big stores also crowd out less popular titles. It seems every Borders and Barnes & Noble across the country stocks the same few thousand books. Wits also decry the effect of the mass hyped volumes like the Harry Potter series, or those promoted by Oprah. They fear a loss of diversity as we focus on just a few books. Yet Harry Potter is quite a wonderful story, and some of Oprah's recommendations simply brilliant. Try the poignant "I Know This Much is True" by Wally Lamb. I for one much prefer listening to people debate the latest Potter or Oprah selection than hearing about some sitcom.

I'm locally known as somewhat of an ogre for mandating no TV and an early bedtime for my kids. But they are allowed to stay awake, in bed, as late as they wish reading. Besides the obvious and important benefit of creating a bit of parental peace it's my firm belief that a love of reading is the most critical part of a great education. Everything else pales.

So what's the deal? Is reading dying? Are we techies better or worse at reading than the typical USA Today subscriber?