Hockey teams and Hollywood moviemakers measure success by head counts and ticket sales. So if you're trying to prove that books still matter in an increasingly post-print society, then maybe you have to join the ratings game.
Which is why, when Canadians buy and check out their books this week, the numbers will be counted as part of a campaign to turn the solitary act of reading into a more public display of solidarity for books and the bookish.
"We want to see if books are important in Canada," said Groundwood Books publisher Patsy Aldana, co-chair of next week's TD Reading Summit in Montreal, where the results of the tally will be used to help create and define a national reading strategy.
Canadians view themselves as readers, relatively speaking - only 13 per cent say they're non-readers versus 43 per cent of Americans. But that level of professed participation doesn't cut it with reading activists, who see both the pleasure and the social usefulness of books being downgraded in favour of low-fun literacy campaigns and textbook-guided teaching systems designed to conquer standardized tests.
"Schoolbooks now are deadly dull," Ms. Aldana said. "They're like modern Dick-and-Jane books, structured to get scores up and guaranteed to turn children off reading."
About half of Canadians have inadequate literacy skills, said Craig Alexander, TD's chief economist. "If we could increase the national literary scores by 1 per cent," he calculates, "we could boost the national income by $32-billion."
But even the commendable desire to improve literacy levels, said Annie Kidder of People for Education, "has become too much about the mechanics and not enough about understanding the joy of reading and what it does to help you understand yourself and your culture, connect to other people and participate in democracy."
That's asking a lot from a book, and perhaps not all kinds of reading are up to the challenge - the National Reading Campaign that's running the reading summit doesn't have much to say about the Web, where many of those professed Canadian readers allow words to pass before their eyes.
But while books suffer from an outdated, impractical, elitist image, recent work in cognitive science is prompting a re-evaluation of reading's value and power.
"A lot of the research on reading has dealt with how it improves vocabulary and verbal ability," said Raymond Mar, a psychology professor at York University. "But now we're starting to see how it might help make us better moral citizens."
Prof. Mar studies how a reader immersed in literary fiction displays keener empathy skills and scores higher on social-ability tests in which decoding non-verbal cues is proof of an agile mind. He cites research on small children who've reached the stage where they begin to understand how other people have different mental states from their own.
"The more storybooks they had was a predictor of how they did in understanding," he said.
That makes sense to anyone who has had the experience of being completely lost in a good book. But for those who require scientific backup, Prof. Mar points to neuroimagery studies that show how some parts of the brain process both the reading of fiction and the understanding of how other people think and feel.
So when you check out that Giller Prize novel this week, don't think of yourself as just a bookworm: You're actually playing a part in page-turning's greater good.
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