Publisher's Insight: Portmanteau interviews a non-reader

Portmanteau: Thanks for joining me! So to give the readers some context to begin with, tell me a little bit about you?

M: I’m Molly, I just graduated from King's College University from an MSc in Early Intervention in Psychosis, and I’m now a trainee PWP [Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner] at University College London. Basically, all things psychology!

P: Because we live together, I know that you don’t read very much. Has that always been the case?

M: I used to read when I was young; a lot actually, and I would always get really excited for primary school book fairs. I used to love the feeling and smell of a new book, so I read loads when I was little. Then I moved on to audiobooks. Not the sort you’d think of nowadays, but like a cassette tape, and that's how I used to listen to Tracy Beaker and other stories like that.

P: You say Tracy Beaker as an example, does that mean you stopped listening to audiobooks in late primary school, or did that continue into secondary?

M: Obviously I read in secondary school a bit, but I definitely slowed down. You just get busy, start making new friends... you wanna go out. I guess school also made reading a chore: it became homework rather than a spare time activity.

P: So would you attribute you stopping reading with your schooling?

M: I guess so. It just became an activity where you had to read a certain amount by a certain time, and you would have to come in and read it out to class or say what you’d learned. It ruined books by really diving into every meaning; you know when the teacher would be like “the sky is blue, which represents sadness because blue is a sad colour. ” They just overdid it.

P: Was it less what they were making you read, and more how you were being made to read?

M: Yeah, I actually enjoyed some of the books they made us read! It was more how we were made to interact with them, like you said, and the whole dissection of it. Sometimes books are just meant to be read! You don’t need to look into every meaning.

P: Now you’ve left school and aren’t being made to read books in the same way, why do you think it is that you still aren’t a big reader?

M: I guess I do still read, but not traditionally. I do a lot of research, and when something pops into my head I will research it and read up on a topic. I love to investigate things. I never leave things as “I don’t know what that is or what that means, and that’s fine”, I will research and read papers. Of course, as part of my education and current job I spend my day reading notes, reading research and psychoeducational papers, so I do read a lot in a sense. That’s why when it comes to my leisure time, the last thing I want to do is read more.

P: That makes sense! So in terms of what you read for work, if you’re reading papers, is that entirely digital or do you still have interaction with print books?

M: If I really need to read to prepare for something, like an interview, I prefer to have it on paper. For the interview for my job they gave us a reading list which I printed out, highlighted, and kept. Print writing still feels more tangible: it’s there, and it sticks in your brain more. When writing is physically out there in the world I feel like I'll be able to remember it, whereas there are so many things you see digitally every day, you can so easily forget the information you read online.

P: What’s the most recent thing you’ve read in print format aside from things that other people have asked you to?

M: Probably The Psychopath Whisperer, I’ve been reading it for years and still haven’t finished it! I really love it, but every time I get into it... it’s almost the same as exercise, I love exercising but the moment I miss a week I won't go back to it for months. With books you have to restart: you can’t just pick up from where you left because you’ll have forgotten it. You need to refresh your memory. I’ve read the first ten chapters so many times, but I do aim to get through it eventually. The last time I read it was probably the beginning of lockdown.

“I learned to skim read in university and school, very quickly, so it was sort of like “why would I spend time reading the whole book when I can get the same understanding much faster?” I know I could skip to the end of the book, read it, and find out quickly how the whole story ends.”

P: When it comes to your leisure time, where someone who likes reading would go to pick up a book, do you consider it and decide not to, or does reading not come into your head at all?

M: It just doesn’t come into my head *laughs*. Maybe sometimes, if I'm conscious of it; for example if you’ve talked about a book, or if my boyfriend has said he’s reading a book then it’ll pop into my head, but for myself it’s just not what I’d reach for. When you read, all of your attention is on that, and where I have my leisure time I’ll wanna be texting my boyfriend or my family, and at the same time I’ll be watching something on TV and doing work on my laptop: I can multitask! Whereas with reading you do shut yourself out from the world. I guess that’s why some people do like to read, but I like to know what’s going on around me.

P: What would be something that would make you decide to spend your time reading, do you think?

M: If it's a topic that really interests me, or if it’s a book I can learn from. If a patient of mine is struggling with a specific issue and there’s a relevant book… I prefer more scientific books, so then I’d be like “okay I’ll go to the library and pick up a book on this issue, because it’ll help somebody, and it has value to it.” Reading a book with no obvious value just doesn’t intrigue me.

P: It’s interesting that you say you’d go to the library. Would you be more inclined to look for a way to access books for free? Or if you did need something for a patient, would you be willing to go out and spend the money on it?

M: No, I wouldn't spend money on a book. Because it’s science that I'm after, I know I can probably find it online. And because my adult reading life has been in the library or online for university research, I'd use the information but not need to keep it. I wouldn’t go back to read the same research again.

P: So when you see a bookstore, what is your mental relationship to that industry? I know you said when you were younger you loved the feel of books, has that changed at all?

M: I still like the look of new books, and I love stationary: I associate that with a bookshop. When I see a bookshop I know there’s going to be stationary.

I do like the look of certain books, and I like a hardback book. If I were to buy a book I'd get a hardback, they look so much nicer. I associate bookshops with intellect and knowledge, but I wouldn't necessarily be inclined to pop in if I walked past one. Unless I was with you.

P: Although that’s not necessarily voluntary! So I think the publishing industry as a whole would be interested to know: what could someone do to catch your interest in a book through marketing?

M: My attention can be caught by any book that I know will help. I think people who don’t read... it’s not because they can’t or aren’t interested, it’s just that fiction books don’t hold interest. If I wanted to hear a story, I'd watch a film instead of reading. And I barely even watch films. I’m more grounded in reality: I wanna hear about stuff that’s going on, so the books that intrigue me are the ones I see on social media and the reviews say “this book really changed my perspective on this subject,” or “it really helped me reach my goals”. Books that have a purpose. My boyfriend is reading Rich Dad Poor Dad and the book’s got space to write notes for yourself and a reflection space at the end of a chapter. It’s got more engagement to it.

When I know a book could actually help me and direct me somewhere, or if it’s an autobiography of someone I really respect... that’s how I think publishers can capture the attention of people who don't necessarily read fiction.

P: So value-targeted books place over storytelling books for you?

M: Yeah. I think if you don't read and haven't read for years, it's so difficult to access that part of your brain. With fiction, you essentially need to make reading seem better than just sitting there and not having to do anything at all, or gaining the same story from a film.

P: So in a very hypothetical situation, if you were to see a film and find out afterwards there’s a book, does having seen the film make you drawn to reading the book?

M: No. *Laughs* I think it’s happened to me before, where I’ve seen the film and someone goes “Well I’ve read the book,” and I'm like “okay, good for you!” We’ve both got there, but I’ve done it in two hours and it took you however long it took you to read the book. I think I’d also be like, I’ve already seen this!

P: Any final thoughts about books, literature, or reading in general?

M: I do think reading is important. It keeps your imagination going, and it's a good break from technology. When I paint, that’s what I imagine reading is like for other people, it takes you away. I paint for hours and don't go on my phone once: almost what reading is like, but I can have music on in the background and still focus on the task at hand.

"I love stationary: I associate that with a bookshop. When I see a bookshop I know there’s going to be stationary."

M: If I had maintained reading from a young age I think I would still enjoy it, but I learned to skim read in university and school, very quickly, so it was sort of like “why would I spend time reading the whole book when I can get the same understanding only much faster?” I know I could skip to the end of the book, read it, and find out quickly how the whole story ends. It’s that element of knowing I can turn my page and ruin it for myself.

P: You think the rise of the internet and instant availability on a societal level has ruined reading as a format?

M: I imagine the number of people spending time reading is probably decreasing. On a mental health level, social media is shortening peoples’ attention spans, and expectations for things: our generation as a whole expects things to be done really quickly and we tend to get very impatient if something doesn’t get sorted right away. That is from social media and having instant access to our friends and family. If you didn’t have a phone you'd have to wait until you see them, and reading is similar in that it’s a longer process involving waiting. You really need to put the work and attention in to know how it turns out. With a film you can sit there, relatively uninvolved, and still know what’s going on.

P: I do agree that there is a large amount of effort that goes into reading. The first few sentences aren’t the easiest, you have to be able to switch your senses off entirely.

M: It’s weird. I think it’s good to have that escape from reality, as long as you have something. It doesn't have to be reading: yoga, listening to music, painting, it all gives you a break from reality. Everybody’s escape is different, and reading for me doesn't feel like an escape: it feels like a fake escape! I’m putting myself into someone else’s world rather than actually taking a break from mine.

P: Thanks for letting me interview you!

M: Thank you! That was fun.

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