Review: Why We Read What We Read

Why We Read What We Read: Exploring Contemporary Bestsellers and What They Say About Our Books and Ourselves, by John Heath and Lisa Adams. Sourcebooks, 2007.

First, I have a confession: Of the books discussed in Why We Read What We Read, I’m fairly sure that I haven’t read nary a one. Not even Harry Potter (though I did peek at the ending of the last one).

Why We Read What We Read looks at a number of categories of bestsellers in the United States: adventure novels, political nonfiction, romance novels, relationship guides, religious books, and literary fiction. Though the authors write in a breezy style when summarizing the books in question, the conclusion they reach is a disturbing one: Americans avoid complex, challenging books in favor of escapist literature or books that fit their preconceived notions about politics, religion, or other contemporary issues. Even best-selling literary fiction, the authors note disapprovingly, tends to end on a hopeful instead of a tragic note.

I came away from this book with very mixed feelings. It’s entertaining, and thanks to its summaries of books like the “Left Behind” series and The Celestine Prophecy, I’ll never have to read them. It’s when the authors turn away from the books themselves and start to draw conclusions about their readers that the book for me began to feel superficial in its insights—ironically, just like the type of books the authors decry here. It would have been useful, for instance, to know what sort of books were bestsellers, say, fifty years ago, to see if American reading tastes have really gone that far downhill or whether readers, at least in the age of mass literacy, have always preferred to look on the lighter side. (As Dickens’s Mr. Sleary said in another context, “People must be amused.”) Similarly, a comparison of American bestsellers with those in other English-speaking countries might have yielded some insights. And is it fair to draw broad conclusions about American reading habits based on bestsellers without taking into account the many books that never make the bestseller lists, but sell well and steadily enough over time to remain in print long after the bestseller of the day has been pulped? Somehow, I kept thinking that there was a bigger picture out here, one that the authors simply weren’t heeding in their rush to judgment.

In addition, some of the authors’ conclusions about what motivates readers struck me as questionable. It’s probably safe to say that people read diet and exercise books because they want to lose weight. It’s probably also safe to say that liberals aren’t rushing out to buy books written by conservatives or vice versa. But is it equally safe to say, as the authors do here, that women read romance novels because they’re not getting the fulfillment they need from their relationships? Or to suggest that reading romance novels is preventing women from getting out of these unhappy relationships? I read very few romance novels myself, but even so, I found these conclusions to be both facile and patronizing, the more so because the authors never talk to any romance readers or to readers of any of the other genres discussed here. (To be fair, the authors do make use of a study of romance readers by Janice A. Radway called Reading the Romance, but that book, written from a feminist perspective and based on talks with 42 women from the same city, was originally published in 1984 and reissued in 1991; it thus can hardly be called the latest word on the subject.) Here and in the other sections dealing with fiction, I found myself wishing the authors had spoken to live readers instead of going on their own assumptions about their motivations for reading what they do.

All in all, this was an interesting and often lively book, but one that because of its shortcomings failed to convince me of its thesis.

6 thoughts on “Review: Why We Read What We Read”

  1. I think “Why We Read…” would drive me to throwing it across the room and bluing the air. Like you I’m not much of a reader of best sellers.

  2. Ouch. The Radway is still frequently assigned in lit and library science classes that study genre romance, because by now it’s a classic of sorts, and there have been few other book-length studies… but her conclusions are both flawed and insulting. Popular culture scholars today generally refute it. I’m surprised a current book about modern reading tastes uses it as a source for an analysis about who reads romance and why.

  3. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks for stopping by, Pussreboots (and what a cute kitty)! I’ll have to check out your site!

    Sarah, that’s interesting to know! I hadn’t heard of the Radway before, but I noticed on Amazon while I was writing this post that it had received very mixed reviews.

  4. Hi Susan, I haven’t read the book but, thanks, it touches on an interesting area. We read different things and different times for different reasons surely. If you’ve time please see my weblog archive/February 19, about re-reading. Re-reading a novel is the true test I reckon. Lucy

  5. Excellent points. It sounds like one of those annoying newspaper columns that draws the conclusion first and then marshals material to support it.
    Are there any statistical analyses in it? Statistics has its drawbacks, but it’s one of the few ways of getting a valid assessment of a large volume of disparate data.

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks for stopping by, Lucy!

    Carla, no statistics. I think some would have helped.

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