Can Beautiful Books Inspire Non-Readers to Read?

Who can resist Deanna Staffo’s  illustrations in the Folio Society edition of Persuasion?

Can readers of beautiful books inspire a reading trend among non-readers?

Well… I’m not an idealist (anymore).

According to the Pew Research Center, about a quarter of American adults (26%) last year said they hadn’t read even part of a book.

That’s bad news, but no one is surprised.

My friend Janet, my cousin Megan, and I sit outside Starbucks on a warm windy day (so windy there are wind advisories).  We’re discussing reading because we have a new project: a book-sharing project.  We three, along with relatives in Mount Pleasant, Davenport, Marshalltown, Sioux Falls, and Galena, have communally purchased classics from the Folio Society.  They’re very expensive–say, $50 to $100 a pop–but when everyone chips in, it’s not bad.

Why?  We love the paper, the beautiful covers, and the illustrations.  But we also noticed Folio Society-inspired action on a trip to Mount Pleasant last summer.

I  left my copy of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic novel Uncle Silas (Folio Society) in the untidy Dickensian den of  Sue’s duplex for an hour, and when I came back her daughter, Paula, just out of rehab, was reading it. ” Beautiful book!”  she said. “Can I borrow it?”  Sue stood behind her nodding furiously and making thumbs-up signs.  Later she tried to pay me.

“No, give it back when she’s done!”

It was inconvenient, but I finished an e-book version.  If Paula tried to read the e-book , she’d be Snapchatting in a minute.  The truly f–ed up have one advantage in this world.  The rest of us frantically try to help.  It must do something for our Karma at least?

Here’s what has happened to those who have reproduced (Janet, Megan, and I did not).  The adult children have failed, they are moving home, they’re divorced, they’re in and out of rehab, can’t hold a job, don’t seem to want to much, never read, read palms, and are on their phones all day.  They went to community college or got Ph.D.s. They didn’t want to work in an office: that’s what they could do.  It’s far easier to live with Mom. (And Dad is long gone.)  Mom isn’t exactly rich.  But even in small towns they can get anything they want…

“Very rewarding, being a mom,” said Sue in Mount Pleasant.

And so we’ve got the Folio Society thing going on.

Is it a success?

Who could possibly not want to read this edition of Persuasion?

I have read Persuasion many times, but it enhances the reading of Persuasion.

Does the Snapchat generation read Persuasion?

Did Facebook, etc., mess them up too much to read Persuasion?

The women of my generation do like this book. We’re very enthusiastic. I suppose it’s too soon to say about the “target audience.”  We leave the books around.  Paula has read Pride and Prejudice and Turgenev’s First Love (her mother reports).  Paula won’t obey the rules about not eating chocolate when she’s reading the book.  Her mother has had a stern talk with her.  Their lodger, the man who lives in the basement?  Well, he’s read five of the FS books.

So not quite the target audience?

I don’t know how it’s working outside of Mount Pleasant.  Well, except in Sioux Falls, where Janet’s aunt reports that her grandson’s trans-boyfriend is on the second volume of War and Peace.

As far as I’ve heard, our project hasn’t changed anyone’s life.

You never know.

Megan wants to buy the Folio Society edition of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple Short Stories next.

Because she thinks that everyone will enjoy that.

12 thoughts on “Can Beautiful Books Inspire Non-Readers to Read?

  1. I *love* the idea of you all amassing beautiful books to encourage reading. I confess that the look of a book *does* have an impact, even on an obsessive reader like me. If I have to put up with a tatty one, I will, but a pretty one is always better and it does enhance the reading experience. Alas, people have so many distractions and such limited attention spans nowadays that it’s hard to get them to pick up a book – good luck! 🙂


  2. “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” …
    Pictures alone are enough. A couple of years ago I found myself buying a book by Jeffrey Archer, in a limited edition, because he got Ronald Searle to illustrate it.

    Who illustrated Uncle Silas? I’d be a bit dubious about getting someone “just out of rehab” to read it though.


    • Yes, I love the pictures too.

      Haven’t read Jeffrey Archer but I like all that family saga/historical novel stuff.

      Charles Stewart illustrated Uncle Silas.

      Well, she can read by the time she gets out of the hospital! For days and days there is lots of fast walking in the halls and then a gradual return (via drugs and NA?) to normalcy. Uncle Silas is a fast read, but the one she should read is The Rose and the Key–satanic mesmerists and mental hospitals!


  3. I wouldn’t advise you to read Jeffrey Archer: a Compendium of Clichés. You can’t help noticing some of the words when you’re looking at Searle’s pictures, though.


  4. I love good illustrations and Folio’s are usually very good. Have you ever seen Pride and Prejudice illustrated by Marcia Sewell? Lovely…lovely. Sewall did the original illustrations for the Little House books.


    • Oh my goodness, I did find a few on the internet and they ARE good. I wish illustrations were more common. I suppose they make the book more expensive.


  5. Hi Kat — Loved this article! I took the liberty of sending the Folio Society a link to this and received the following reply from them:

    Dear Mr Sxxxxx
    Thank you for your e-mail and for bringing this blog to our attention.

    I have shared this link with our digital team and we are really impressed with Kat’s writing! It’s so lovely when we see fellow bookworms helping to spread the Folio bug. We will certainly follow her blog and share the article.

    Thanks again, and have a lovely weekend.

    All the best

    Claire Gogarty
    Customer Service Assistant
    The Folio Society

    Anyway, best of luck in your plan and I hope and think it will work. We need more readers for sure!

    Best, Neil


    • Neil, thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it and am so surprised the the Folio Society kindly responded to your note. Their books are so nice–I want illustrations in all my books now.


  6. Beautiful books are not just shelf decoration. When the design of a book truly supports and enhances the contents, it becomes more than the sum of its parts. For me, cheap paperbacks can now be handily replaced by e-books, which are similarly convenient and disposable (I only get them from the library). But for the books I truly love, I long to have an edition that marries great writing with great design. Folio has done some magnificent ones!


    • I know what you mean: I have always loved my paperbacks but sometimes the paper tans and it’s nice to have more “permanent” classics. The Folio books are beautiful, especially in the last decade or so!

      Liked by 1 person

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