On the homogenization of reading


Posted on June 16th, 2011

Paperback in the house!

Here’s my contribution to Shome Dasgupta’s On Reading project, in which 130+ authors have expressed some of their thoughts about the act of reading. Check out contributions by the terrific Anthony Doerr and Gina Frangello, among others. Sandra Beasley‘s essay is especially wonderful, as well.

Read the post at Shome’s blog, or below.

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There’s a lot of complaining and judgment these days concerning the act of reading — about the demise of the physical book and traditional publishing, in particular. And yet, everywhere I look: Readers, reading!

I’ve visited more than twenty book groups in the past year. I’ve joined, in my adult life, half as many (I always stop going — for a writer, especially, I think reading tends to be a solitary experience). I am not at all concerned about the future of the book, in whatever form it takes.

My one concern about modern reading isn’t that it’s on the wane — all evidence to the contrary — but that it is homogenizing. There have always been popular books, of course, but it seems that with the rise of book group culture, two things are true:

a) More books have room to be popular at once (a good thing)
b) People who read are expected to read all the same books (not a good thing)

When I visit book groups, I ask what they’ve been reading, because I’m genuinely curious. In a ten-book-year, seven or eight titles will be repeated across every group. These titles filter through the public consciousness like weather. There’s nothing abjectly wrong with this, but it leads to a way of thinking about books that I believe is misguided.

Many people seem to believe these days that a book should be consistently appreciated or even liked, as if every book strives to take its place on a universal reading list (and if a book doesn’t, it’s failed). This is a misapprehension not only about books but about humans, who experience everything in the world — the written word included — individually.

Recently I was taken to task when I said I hadn’t read a wildly popular series of novels. I think there was a time when a person might have said, ‘No, I haven’t read that,’ and that would be the end of that part of the discussion. These days, the follow-up question is more likely to be, ‘Why? Is there a particular reasonyou’ve neglected this book [that everyone else has read and liked]? Are you taking a particular stand against reading this book?’

It’s disconcerting. Despite the difficult publishing climate, books continue to be released in numbers much greater than one can reasonably consume. (And of course there’s literature’s backlist, all the books we wish we’d read but still haven’t.) Considering this alone, there should be no expectation — none at all — that we all read the same books.

This naturally leads to the question of how to find books to read, which brings up the demise of the brick-and-mortar store and the pastime of browsing. The one path left to lesser-known books? Word of mouth.

So my answer to the question of why I haven’t read monumentally popular books X, Y, and Z is this: I want to be part of the word of mouth, not one voice in a million but one in a dozen. I want to be able to say: If you liked that, you might really enjoy this little-known author and his little-known body of work. And if you like it, you can recommend it to your book group. And so on

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In other news, I’ve received bound copies of STILTSVILLE in paperback — and they are scrumptious.  Available 6/28 in stores, or now for pre-order!

Sd

Post script — It occurs to me that I might include titles I’ve read lately, and enjoyed (considering word-of-mouth must start somewhere!) The books I’ve read in the past few weeks are:

CROSSING TO SAFETY, by Wallace Stegner. This was my late mother’s favorite book, and I can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to read it. It’s beautiful, and it reminds me of my book (I know how that sounds since Stegner’s is a classic, yes, and also it reminds me that my mother would have loved Stiltsville.)

THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE, by Helen Schulman. This was a recommendation from my editor, who is also Schulman’s editor. Lovely novel about what happens to a family after what appears to be a minor crisis snowballs.

CUTTING FOR STONE, by Abraham Verghese. Yes, this is an oft-read book club book, but it’s exquisite. I’m not sure how Verghese manages to keep the narrator from seeming overwrought, but he does so beautifully.

LIGHT YEARS, by James Salter. I’ve only just begun this novel. I’ve been told approximately five million times that it is manna from heaven, so I suppose that should be enough for me to read it, no?




4 thoughts on “On the homogenization of reading

  1. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

    I hadn’t thought about the homogenization of reading choices in the same way you have, in part because I haven’t noticed it quite as strongly. My book clubs move back and forth with our attraction to the “typical book club books”, and when we do pick them, it’s often because we’ve heard good things about the books and the discussion potential from friends in other book clubs! (That’s how we ended up reading and discussing Cutting For Stone)

    However, my flip side of your observation is that I love programs like our local Silicon Valley Reads, because they give a starting point for conversations about books. Similarly, books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which seems to be the one book everyone who read any work of fiction last year read gives conversations about books a place to start. Based on what the person did or didn’t like about it, I can make recommendations from a much wider pool.

    Just in case you are curious, I’ll share the upcoming reads for both of my book clubs. The one that already read & discussed your book is reading

    Just Kids by Patti Smith
    Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
    A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
    Divergent by Veronica Roth
    Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

    I know one of those is common in other book clubs, I’m not certain of the others. My other club just chose

    The Heroine’s Bookshelf by Erin Blakemore
    Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
    No One You Know by Michelle Richmond
    Skipping a Beat by Sarah Pekkanen
    Speak Laurie Halse Anderson
    A Regular Guy by Mona Simpson

    Again, one of these is a book commonly read by book clubs, and a couple more have the potential to be :-).

    I’ll check out all the books you mentioned. Well, except the one I’ve already read :-).

    • Thanks for stopping by, Laura! I agree. I love seeing what others are reading. I just finished Cutting for Stone (for my book club, no less!) and really loved it.

      Sd

  2. I’m reading Stiltsville now and enjoying it very much. I’ve been thinking that it reminds me of Crossing to Safety, so I was interested to see that the Stegner book was your mother’s favorite. Also interesting that you hadn’t read Crossing to Safety before you wrote your book! You must have absorbed it somehow through your mother!

    • Hello Jyotsna! Thanks so much for writing. I’m glad you’re enjoying the book, and that it reminds you of Crossing to Safety as well. I’m not crazy, then!