James Patterson’s Quest to Save Reading

James Patterson Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images

This morning at BookExpo, gazillion-selling crime author and publishing giant James Patterson announced the launch of Jimmy Patterson, his new children’s-book imprint at Little, Brown & Company, whose profits will help pay for various literacy programs. The move is the author’s latest salvo in his crusade to help spread a love of reading — he’s given millions to libraries and independent bookstores, and frequently funded book giveaways. (He’s also happy to put a thumb in Amazon’s hegemonic eye now and then.)

It’s noble stuff, and just a smidge ironic, given the curious spot Patterson occupies — the man who industrialized novel-writing is the same dude determined to inculcate a personal and passionate relationship with reading? But if anyone knows how to get books into readers’ hands, it’s Patterson. Here’s what he had to say about the problems with American literacy, the new imprint, and his old frenemy Jeff Bezos. 

One of the things that’s interesting to me about literacy efforts is that the statistics suggest that American literacy rates are actually pretty stable — they’re not going down. So what, then, are the long-term goals for your work? Is American literacy a problem that still needs solving?
To be honest, statistics don’t usually work very well for me. The problem — the opportunity — is that we can get a lot more kids reading than currently are. Kids are pretty good readers; they’re ready to be reading more broadly. My son Jack, when he was about 8 or so, he wasn’t reading a lot. We said, “Look, you’re going to read every day this summer.” He said, “Do I have to?” “Well, yes, unless you want to live in a garage.” We went out and got him about a dozen books, and when he took his SATs, he got an 800 in reading. That’s one opportunity.

What’s the second?
The second opportunity, which is more important, and this is where the statistics go out the window, are at-risk kids. It’s almost impossible for them to get through high school if they don’t become competent readers. And they become a big drag on everybody. We really can get a lot of those kids reading. I’ve seen it. I went to graduate school at Vanderbilt, and we have a program there where we bring in kids from poor middle schools every Saturday, and we’ve seen that when they go back to school, the entire school’s reading scores have gone up dramatically because reading is infectious.

You know the old, “It’s the economy, stupid”? Actually, the future of the economy is education, stupid. It really is. A lack of true literacy is screwing us up in terms of the kind of citizens we have and their ability to look at an election and make intelligent decisions or informed decisions. Look, I can’t solve global warming, but we can actually do some good work with reading.

If we’re talking about at-risk kids, they’re often in schools where the teachers are overwhelmed and often come from families where instilling a love of reading might be secondary to subsistence concerns. Aren’t there larger systemic questions that need addressing before we get to something attitudinal like fostering a love of reading? I guess what I’m asking is whether or not there’s a cart-before-the-horse element at play here.
I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. There are a lot of ways to tackle the problem you’re talking about. We’ve seen different things tried. I mean, they’ve literally tried to bribe kids in school to read more — and that can work, but it’s not going to happen on a broad scale. The best thing you can do at the school level is make sure there’s a reasonable number of books that the kids are reading that they go, “I like that.” I always make the joke that if they taught movies in school — and it wouldn’t be a bad thing to teach in terms of structure and characterization; I think of my books in a very cinematic fashion — but if they started with Ingmar Bergman movies, of course we’d go, “Oh, no, I don’t like that.” And that’s unfortunately what happens to kids with reading. Between a little too much grammar and a little too much sternness, these kids get turned off for life.

So curricula should skew more Jimmy Patterson and less, I don’t know, Shakespeare? It seems to me that there’s a functional difference between types of books and their educational value. Or do you think a book is a book is a book, and given the choice, kids should read the one they find the most entertaining?
It’s not like anyone’s ever going to be able to catch up with all of the potentially terrific literature that’s available in the world — even in the private schools. My dream is that the kids will leave school having been exposed to 200 or 300 different voices in literature. Here’s Doris Lessing, here’s whatever, on and on and on. But it’s got to be less about, “Do you know every single important American author and European author?” and more about turning kids on to reading enough that they keep it up for the rest of their lives.

One could probably argue that kids are actually more deeply involved in reading and written communication than ever, just because they’re online so much and using social media. Is it necessarily the case that that kind of reading is worse than reading a novel? Isn’t it possible that as the culture moves forward, we may need to redefine what constitutes good reading? A couple millennia ago, the Greeks thought about reading in terms of orality. That’s not how we think about it. Similarly, maybe at some point in the future, the book format won’t seem as central as it does now.
We’re evolving, there’s no doubt about that — which doesn’t mean that people can’t focus long enough to read a novel. It just means they have less patience for the form. As educators, we’re going to have to be looser in terms of what we’re asking kids to read, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Kids want to get to the meat of a book or an argument. I’ve read Robert Caro’s LBJ books, and I like them, but a lot of people aren’t going to have the patience. There’s value in acknowledging that reality.

So on a practical level, how do you encourage kids to read more?
Part of it is just pushing them toward books or things that they’re actually going to enjoy. Reading should always be about fun. I’ve seen book clubs in schools where all of a sudden the whole school is reading a book. Reading becomes cool. We’re all creatures of habit, and if the whole school is doing it and it suddenly becomes a thing, [then] it’s okay. There aren’t many schools you can’t turn around. But the effort always has to be rooted in joy. It can’t be, “Do your homework.”

Isn’t this moving things toward a future where no one is interested in — what, Ulysses? Shouldn’t readers be pushed beyond their comfort zones? 
No one was ever interested in Ulysses. Nobody. Well, I read Ulysses twice, and that puts me in the top God-knows-what percentile of readers. I think there is still a big future for serious books and longer books, but we’re talking about something different. I’m talking about reading as a survival skill. I’ll go into schools and I talk to school principals and say, “I’m here to save lives.” J.K. Rowling saved a lot of lives because the kids that dealt with all the Harry Potter books became competent readers, and could make it through high school and could make it through college. Then they could get a job. I think what you’re talking about — the tough, meaty books — are important. But that’s also a cart-before-the-horse issue. Let’s get the kids reading first. That’s what’s crucial.

How does a publishing giant like Amazon, with which you’ve had your issues, fit in with your literacy efforts?
Any other issues with Amazon are secondary to what we’re talking about right now. But here’s the problem: You’ve got about 30 percent less people going into bookstores now, which includes a lot of parents and grandparents. So they’re no longer buying books in the stores for their kids because they’re not going into the stores in the first place. And kids have not made the transition to e-books. So the kids are no longer getting books. Put that in your literacy-statistics pipe and smoke it. I actually talked to [Jeff] Bezos about the whole thing, and he said he was on the case. But I haven’t seen the results yet.

You can obviously get a meeting with Amazon or Walmart or Target. But how do you know that beyond extending you the courtesy of a conversation, those places are going to follow through on anything that would mean more books in more hands of people who aren’t getting them? Presumably, books are not what’s giving the biggest goose to those companies’ bottom lines.
Well, it’s my job in those meetings to make sure that these places understand that giving more and better space to books is in their best interest. And here’s why it is: One, the book sections of their stores will do better if people know that they’re there and have reasons to go there. And those sections will do better if they’re organized better and are more strategic about the kinds of kids’ books and the number of kids’ books that are the focus of those sections. A huge number of people don’t even know that they have books in these stores because the stores haven’t done a good job of merchandising, and the sections are unfocused. Look, people like you and me, we’re in the reading business, we’re literate, we go to good colleges, most of our friends are readers. We don’t realize what it’s like for the rest of the world. They’re just not into reading. So people can get very, “Oh, well, you know, kids read just fine.” But the truth is that they don’t.

How does the Jimmy Patterson book imprint help address that truth?
What’s different about this imprint is that it has a very simple, clear focus: When a kid finishes a Jimmy book, we want them to then say, “Please give me another book.” That’s our focus, and books that do that are the books we’re going to publish — and that will make books a little cooler. It will allow people to look at that imprint and go, “Okay, I know what that’s about.”

And what are they about?
They fit in with my skill set, which is story, story, story. [Crime novelist] Michael Connelly said about my stuff that every chapter in one of Jim’s books moves both the characterization and the action forward, and it turns on the movie projector in our heads. That’s useful for writing books for kids, and I always give kids something to think about. That’s what all my books are like: readable, and with something to think about. And that’s what we’re going to continue with Jimmy Patterson. In addition, all of my profits are going to go to this mission I have of getting kids to read more. We gave a bunch of money away to indie bookstores last year, and we’ll continue to do that. We just gave away a million and a half to school libraries, because they’re in need and need attention. We do book giveaways. In Baltimore, we’re going to give away books before school kids leave for summer as a kind of, “Okay, we know it was a tough year for you. God bless. Have a nice summer.”

What are you reading now?
Oh shit, I never can remember! I should carry a card around with a book title written on it, just so I can have an answer to this question that people always ask me. But I’m always reading. That’s the point — I’m always reading.