Saturday, September 08, 2007

Why We Read What We Read by John Heath and Lisa Adams

What do weight loss, evil emperors and tales of redemption have in common?

We readers have many dirty little secrets—and our bestselling books are spilling them all. We can’t resist conspiratorial crooks or the number 7. We have bought millions of books about cheese. And over a million of us read more than 50 nearly identical books every single year.

In Why We Read What We Read, Lisa Adams and John Heath take an insightful and often hilarious tour through nearly 200 bestselling books, ferreting out their persistent themes and determining what those say about what we believe and how we relate to one another.

This is a very different read for me! I don't normally read much non fiction, much less do I remember reading any books that are really about reading. The idea behind this book was to have a look at the bestsellers over a period of time and try to figure out what the reading patterns (or probably more precisely, the book buying habits) of the American public can tell us. Make no mistake, this is very much a book that is targeted to the American reading public - there is little consideration about other reading populaces around the world. That's a completely understandable focus to have - it's just that I don't actually fit into that target demographic!

In trying to undertake this analysis, the authors have broken the book into several distinct genres - books focused on diet/wealth creation etc, adventure novels and political books (with particular focus on the numerous books that came out just prior to the 2004 US elections), self help in terms of relationships and romance novels, literary fiction and religious literature.

Whilst it must be quite difficult to undertake a study of hundreds of books that have been published over a period of 15 years or so, glean some lessons and put it into a form that both makes sense and also is readable,the authors do quite admirably in this area. There are plenty of light hearted, tongue in cheek comments, either aimed at specific types of books, or the authors/reading public etc. In fact, some of them were laugh out loud funny, and that certainly made a potentially dry read much more interesting in parts. Whilst there are some interesting points raised throughout the book, but maybe it is would have been better to break this kind of book into sections and just read a section at a time. Where I really did struggle is with some of the conclusions drawn, because it would appear that from my reading habits, I am doomed...doomed I tell you!

For me, there were some chapters that were harder work than others, most particularly because there were a whole heap of books that either never made it big in Australia, or where I just don't read those genres (for example, political books). The chapters that I had the most reaction to were the chapters about literary fiction and romance because they are what I do read, so I will focus more on those sections in the following paragraphs.

Romance is lumped together in a chapter called Hopefully Ever After with the profusion of relationship books out that were popular during the 90s like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and Relationship Rescue by Dr Phil. The authors look at many of the big names in romance - Roberts, Howard, Evanovich (they are big fans of Janet!), Woodiwiss and Quinn all get a mention, as well as Sparks and some romantic fiction like The Time Traveller's Wife and Girl with A Pearl Earring - and for a while there I actually began to think that maybe, just maybe, the conclusions wouldn't point to all the normal cliches that are drawn about romance readers, but alas it wasn't to be! Apart from the fact that basically it ended up being suggested that reading romances was a coping mechanism, "over a million of those [romance readers] consume an astounding 51-100+ books a year! These numbers suggest that a great many people are intensely reliant on the emotional effects of reading these books." And the final conclusions on this subject...."It's sadder still to learn that we love to read about love because we have so little of it". Last year I read over 100 romances, but having said that, I also read more than 100 books from other genres as well!

And what about other genres - specifically literary fiction. Well, things don't look that great here either. As readers we love to read about the triumph of the human spirit, about ways of being able to assuage our guilt, about redemption. The fact that nearly every single book on the list either has a happy ending, or at least the hope of a happy ending just helps the conclusion that we are sticking our head in the sand about real life as we read, because in real life, there isn't always a happy ever after. Oprah gets a fair amount of page space in this section, and she probably comes out of it with a little more credit than a lot of people seem to give her, although she is somewhat criticised for encouraging the internalisation by her readers of the books that she has chosen for her book club.

Of course, there could be no look at the bestseller lists of the early 2000's without mentioning one book, and that book gets significant page space - especially looking at how it is that Dan Brown basically wrote the same book twice and yet one was initially a dud, and the other a smash hit.

Man it sucks being a miserable reader! I'm not sure if I need to go and pick up a romance novel and try to cope, or whether I should pick up the literary fiction I am reading and contemplate if I have anything to feel guilty about!

Thanks to Source Books for sending this book to me for review.

Rating 3/5


  1. I'm just about to start reading this book courtesy of Sourcebooks as well. Maybe I'll wait a little longer now ;)

    From a writer's viewpoint, I am interested in what the authors came up with for reasons certain books are more successful than others.

  2. Still read it, because there is every chance that this is just my slant on it!