Living

Writers give their take on reading

Lovers of the written word will gather in Columbia again next weekend for the S.C. Book Festival.

Some of the most voracious readers in the crowd at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center will be the ones leading discussions and signing books - the authors themselves. When they're not writing a book, they often are engrossed in someone else's work.

We asked a few of them some questions about reading. Here are the folks who responded:

FRANK BAKER: Maintains the Media Literacy Clearinghouse, a K-12 resource Web site; author of "Political Campaigns & Political Advertising: A Media Literacy Guide"

TIFFANY L. WARREN: Dallas-based author, playwright, songwriter, mother and wife; latest novel is "In the Midst of it All"

MARJORY WENTWORTH: South Carolina's poet laureate; her third collection of poems, "The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle" is coming out this spring

CELIA RIVENBARK: Wilmington, N.C.-based newspaper columnist; latest book of essays is "You Can't Drink All Day If You Don't Start In the Mornin'"

MINDY FRIDDLE: Lives in Greenville, where she directs the Writing Room, a community-based nonprofit program that brings bring writers in for paid seminars and readings; second novel "Secret Keepers" coming out soon

FRAN HAWK: Writes children's books and a weekly column for the Charleston Post and Courier based on her experiences as a school librarian, mother and grandmother

BRIAN RAY: Former instructor at USC, now living in Greensboro, N.C.; his "Through the Pale Door" won the 2009 S.C. First Novel Prize

And here are their responses to our questions:

Do you own a Kindle? If so, what do you think of the experience of reading a book on it?

BAKER: No I don't. But I love the idea that e-readers and tablets are bringing the reading experience to more audiences.

WARREN: No! I like books that I can take into the bathtub!

WENTWORTH: Yes, it was a Christmas gift from my husband. I use it mostly for work. Since I work in publishing, I can download galleys of manuscripts and/or books. I also use it for research for writing projects. I can download and read articles and books in a minute, rather than having to search the Internet or buy them or go to the library and see if they might have that particular volume. It's also great when I am on the road. I have a bad back, and it saves me from hauling lots of book around.

RIVENBARK: No, but some of my best friends own Kindles, and I've tried theirs. Bottom line: I'm a dinosaur who prefers spilling my coffee on good ol' paper, not a screen. I'm not a great candidate for Kindle because I love keeping a library of books to hold, touch, feel, make out with, you get the idea. What I mean to say is that while the immediacy of Kindle is wonderful, it's no replacement for the real thing.

FRIDDLE: I don't own a Kindle. I've been waiting for an Apple version. I've been reading newspapers on my iPhone. I'm excited about the iPad and plan to get one. I love the idea of digital readers - the convenience of sampling and ordering books anytime, and taking along your reader when you travel. You can read in waiting rooms and in long lines. You can always have the novel you're reading with you everywhere you go.

HAWK: I don't own a Kindle, but I borrowed one from a friend so that I could take it on a trip. The experience of reading a book on a screen, especially in the close confines of an airplane seat, was OK. The downside was that I was always worried about harming or losing the Kindle. I couldn't leave it on a beach towel or take it in the rain. I don't want to own one.

RAY: My Kindle arrived under a Christmas tree several weeks ago, and I wish an electronic version of every book existed. So far it's saved my back, and I no longer have to worry about which book I'll to take to the oil change. I'm actually buying more books than normal. At the same time, I agree with Sherman Alexie and others that Amazon or someone needs to produce an affordable electronic reader before we start cheering.

Some studies indicate young people are reading fewer books, yet certain books or book series (Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, Twilight) sell extremely well. What do you think that says about the future of writing (and reading)?

BAKER: What might be true is that they are reading fewer books, but perhaps they are reading more via media and technology. With mobile phones, laptops and other emerging devices reading and writing are happening.

WARREN: It concerns me not only because I write young adult books, but because I think reading is a leisure item that everyone can have! If parents can't afford gadgets, they can always check books out from the library. Young people may be reading less because their parents don't give books as gifts - they give iPods.

WENTWORTH: People love stories. This will never change. The huge success of these books proves that. I have three sons, who weren't book crazy when they were younger. Now they are all college age or over, and they are voracious readers. I am much more concerned about the kids who can't read at all. So many children fall through the cracks in this way. The statistics are shocking.

RIVENBARK: They're reading fewer books, but I'm not sure they're reading less. My 12-year-old daughter reads plenty on the computer every day. She devoured the "Twilight" series in about a week so I know she can get quite passionate about reading. I'm thrilled that "Twilight," etc. has ignited a passion for reading in so many young people. I noticed that after "Twilight," she learned about another couple of teen series and she and her friends have been swapping Sarah Dessen novels and other typical young adult literature. I'm not sure this would've happened without that blockbuster "Twilight" jump start. I will say that the Accelerated Reader program at elementary school nearly killed her love of reading completely because she had to read a certain number of books in many genres. My girl's a fiction chick so this was difficult. It took a team of vampires to bring her back to the fold. I think that she'll be a reader for life now. One day, she might even read one of mine!

FRIDDLE: I think young people are reading plenty, as the successful Harry Potter, "Twilight" series, etc., prove. Young people are also reading graphic novels, and reading online. Right now, young adult fiction is one of the most successful genres - there are some beautifully written young adult books out there. Neil Gaiman, author of "American Gods" and "The Graveyard Book," is another good example of an author who writes young adult best sellers - comics and novels- and who has a tremendous following.

HAWK: I celebrate when kids read anything! Series have been popular for as long as I can remember. Nancy Drew, "Goosebumps," etc. The point is that kids discover that there are books they enjoy. The really good news is that writers as gifted as J.K. Rowling are writing for children. In our world of the future, the "haves" will be the people who can read and analyze information.

RAY: People have complained about the decline in reading for decades. If we don't find ways to take advantage of Potter and "Twilight," it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For any truth in the gloom and doom, I don't blame TV and the Internet. There's not much we can do about that except highlight what reading does that other media can't. I blame the way literature is often taught badly in middle school, high school, and even in some colleges. As a teacher, I've talked to quite a lot of students who said they stopped reading in their teens because school turned it into drudgery.

Was there a book you had to read for a high school English course that you hated? If so, what was it and do you understand now why you had to read it?

WARREN: Yes. "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair, and I still don't understand why I needed to read it!

WENTWORTH: I loved everything I read in high school, except maybe my chemistry book.

RIVENBARK: Yes, "Beowulf." I hated it then, and I hate it now. Absolutely useless. It's not even good for cocktail party conversation.

FRIDDLE: I can't think of a book I hated in high school, but I can think of one that unsettled me. As a senior, I remember reading "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner, and feeling overwhelmed by the lush language, the stream of consciousness, and the poignant, damaged characters. I felt as if I'd been thrown in a vat of Vaseline - I didn't grasp the meaning of the novel, it was slippery and blurry, but it fascinated me. After a few pages, I surrendered to the gorgeous plush prose, and gave up trying to analyze it. I grew to love it. I've reread "The Sound and the Fury" several times since then It's one of my favorite books.

HAWK: "Idylls of the King" Ugh. All I got from that book was a lifelong aversion to literature that was similar. Now as an adult mentoring students, I write newspaper columns begging teachers to assign stuff that kids want to read. We're trying to turn them on, not off.

RAY: I thought "The Great Gatsby" was a pretty mundane book until M.J. Bruccoli's Fitzgerald class at USC. There's a difference between a high school teacher who uses an author because the school board approved it and a teacher who smacks the table top every week and shouts, "Don't you see, Fitzgerald is a genius!"

If you start reading a book and don't like it, do you force yourself to finish it?

BAKER: No, I would not force myself to finish it. Life is too short.

WARREN: I used to, but I decided this year not to do that anymore! My time is too precious and there are too many good books I could be reading.

WENTWORTH: Ninety percent of the time, yes. I read very fast.

RIVENBARK: Never. I'm too busy to waste time like that. If it doesn't hook me quickly, I move on.

FRIDDLE: I give every book at least 50 pages. If it doesn't grab me by page 51- I go on to another book.

HAWK: My advice to both adults and children is to stop reading any book that hasn't grabbed you after 30 pages. There are too many great books out there to waste time on one you don't like.

RAY: If the writing is slow and difficult, I'll soldier on. But if the characters or plot are shallow, I see no reason to waste my time. I'd rather read Margaret Atwood (who's a riot) than Mary Higgins Clark (who's a dope).

On the flip side, if you finish a book and love it, do you find yourself content or wishing the narrative could continue?

BAKER: I'm content - but will probably seek other writings by the same author.

WENTWORTH: I generally read it again. I want to understand the craft better. I always want to go back and figure out how the author did it.

RIVENBARK: I'm usually content. There are only two books that I can recall reading and wishing they'd never end. The first was Stephen King's "The Stand." The second was Conroy's "The Prince of Tides." I savored both of those books and was honestly heartbroken when I got to the last page.

FRIDDLE: I'm always delighted to read a book that transported me. I may read it again and again. But everything must come to an end - even great books.

RAY: The ending's part of the book. Rather than wish for another chapter that doesn't exist, I'll reminisce or re-read the book - never immediately. The good thing about teaching literature is that you can re-read your favorite books and get paid for it.

- Compiled by Joey Holleman

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