I love book culture. I love book blogs (obviously?) and book festivals, and readings, and #FridayReads and #amreading. I do not love the way we book people talk about ourselves, though. The memes, infographics, think pieces, quotes and such that grind my gears fall into two categories:
- Readers are different
- Readers are better people
I’ve been thinking about these ideas lately, with help from a couple authors I’ve been lucky enough to see in person.
Readers are different
There are two ideas wrapped up in this one: that readers are rare, and that readers are different from non-readers; in the Buzzfeed sense that there are an arbitrary number of things “only we will understand,” and in the subtle (or not) snobbery of the “I don’t even own a TV” reader who is above other forms of entertainment.
And here’s the thing, I don’t think any novelist, even Stephen King or James Patterson, is writing for all Americans. They’re writing for the segment of Americans that reads books. And then within that large but not 100 percent segment, there’s a smaller audience that reads trade paperback fiction as opposed to mass market paperback fiction, which is no longer a distinction. I realize that it doesn’t hold up so well, but you know what I mean (laughter). And they are, readers are, to some extent, ipso facto estranged from American culture because reading is slow and requires a long attention span, and requires you to sort of check all of the electronic distractions while you’re engaged with it.
Jonathan Franzen, ladies and gentlemen! I was in the room for this interview at Book Expo America and I remember vividly the phrase “estranged from American culture” because my eyes almost rolled outta my head. Please, tell me more about how reading and electronic distractions don’t mix… but wait till I’m done live-tweeting your interview and creating a Vine of your new book (oh yeah, I’m doing that now.)
And okay, I know there are subsets of “book people” that agree with Mr. F and think I’m a cretin for reading on my phone or even participating in the #amreading, book-blogging, galley-bragging online “book culture” (as opposed to literary culture,) but that’s the point: readers, like everyone else on the planet, come in different flavours and habits and preferences. Some like e-readers, and some like the smell of books, and some don’t talk about their reading at all. We aren’t all the same and we are able to choose our level of engagement with American or Canadian or whatever culture.
I was at a somewhat lower-key author event back in April with Lynn Coady, who gave the phrase “book loving hedonist” to the title of this post. She, like Franzen, sees readers as different, but not in an alienated-intellectual sense, but in the sense that we simply love something to a greater degree than most people. More on Coady’s lecture in a moment, as a lot of her talk relates to the idea that:
Readers are better people.
You’ve read one of these studies, or at least seen this kind of infographic:
And then there are the lists and memes and quotes, which don’t even pretend to be based in science. This is just the latest in Buzzfeed’s near-identical backlog of “Reader problems” lists (most of the problems boil down to how hard it is to be smarter than the great unwashed.)
I can’t stand this stuff. I won’t even get into the methodology (correlation does not equal causation!) or the objective definition of terms like “reader” and “empathy,” though that’s a large part of my distaste. It’s more that I find this kind of back-patting smug at best and dishonest at worst.
Here’s the thing: people who read, capital-R Readers and casual readers alike, do it because it feels good. Does anyone pick up a book, let alone dozens of books per year, because they want to develop more empathy? The New Yorker’s story about bibliotherapy is really interesting. I own The Novel Cure, the book written by the bibliotherapists in question, because of course I do; I’m squarely in the target audience. I bought it because it’s a book about books, not because I was thinking “hmm, I really need to do something about my lack of empathy,” and I read fiction because of how it makes me feel, not for self-improvement.
Reading reduces stress? For me it sure does- perhaps not because of some inherent quality of reading, but because I like it. Of course doing something pleasurable reduces stress!
Back to Coady – she was giving the Kreisel Lecture for the Canadian Literature Centre at University of Alberta this year. When the title of her lecture was revealed to be “Who Needs Books?” I was worried. Was this going to be some feel-good “books are awesome” thing? Well, yes, kind of, but where Franzen alienates himself from popular culture, Coady positions herself right in the middle of it, and gets to the root of the anxiety around readers being different, and separate, and better, with this quote from Steven Pinker:
As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline—the illusion of the good old days.
Rather than a morally superior enclave of “serious” people, under attack by the TV and Twitter loving masses, Coady sees readers as just one flavour of hedonist, no better than any other, and challenges us to look to ourselves if we don’t like the way the culture (book, American, or otherwise) is going. She illustrated this with a close reading of the children’s classic The Monster at the End of this Book (feat. Grover) and displayed a better sense of humour than you’ll find in any number of think pieces about the decline of society.
Not convinced? I just happened to read this story, an extremely detailed account of the Ed Champion fiasco, while writing this. Read the whole thing, and the comments. I’ll wait. I couldn’t have asked for a better portrait of book culture as a dysfunctional space full of people distinctly lacking in empathy.
Look, I’m not completely cynical. I’m a book blogger. I’m a member of the book community. I just met a blogger in person (hi CJ!) and it was magic – like, here’s this stranger who already “gets” you. And we went to BEA, which was that feeling exploded to fill the entire Javits Centre. But let’s stop kidding ourselves. We are regular people, and we aren’t any better than our friends who watch TV, or read things that aren’t books, or have some other weird hobby.
What do you think, book lovers? Are you a hedonist? Do you feel removed from popular culture? Do you, like the Hachette Hawk, have paper cuts in unspeakable places?