Review of “Why We Read What We Read”

I just finished the book, Why We Read What We Read. It is the fourth book I’ve read in the past year or so on the publishing industry and reading culture in England and North America. (The others were Merchants of Culture, The Late Age of Print, and The Times of Their Lives). All of these books are ambitious, but Lisa Adams and John Heath’s effort is perhaps the most ambitious of all. Their goal is to get an inside read on the psyche of mainstream America. To accomplish this they waded through nearly 200 of the books that appeared on the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller lists from the years 1995-2005.
It was a particularly fertile period from which to draw a sample: it saw the rise of Harry Potter, the birth and death of The Oprah Book Club, and the apotheosis of Dan Brown. The book is organized by genre: self-help, adventure novels, political non-fiction, romance, religion & spirituality, and literary fiction (e.g. The Kite Runner). The Da Vinci Code gets a chapter all its own. What came through all that reading is a culture that is hooked on quick fixes and simplistic answers to thorny problems. One that would rather take the advice of a huckster than think for itself. Even so, Adams and Heath are not complete scourges or prophets of doom. For example, they give a stiff defense of Oprah’s book club (she got people reading, after all, and there are even one or two enduring masterpieces on her list.) Adams and Heath also remind us where Oprah may have went wrong (it wasn’t that her books were too easy or two girly, but that she and her audience read not for reading’s sake but to gather insights into their own biographies). In their conclusion, Adams and Heath pine for a culture where deeper, more complex, and realistic books take a front row to the current fare saying, “If we can wean ourselves from the destructive and useless quest for easy answers, devoting ourselves instead to a genuine search for truth in all its complexity, we can change the substance of these [bestseller] lists.” True! Nevertheless, what Adams and Heath fail to take on board is that the success of authors like Dan Brown funds the professional publication of dozens of serious and experimental novels at big publishing houses–even poetry. To paraphrase the futurist, Kingsley L. Dennis, “Change always comes from the margins, not from the center.”

Why We Read What We Read
Why We Read What We Read