What to read? (Part 8) Reading Bestsellers
Best books and bestsellers
Every reader will, at some point, have to decide how to deal with the inevitable guilt that comes from contemplating everything not yet read: all the canonical classics, all the top sellers, all the books everyone says you mustn’t miss at any cost. There are a number of possible strategies to employ when reading bestsellers or classics: you can skim, or read about the books, enough that you can manage to talk knowledgeably about them; you can trust your common knowledge and simply lie or pretend when faced with books you don’t know; or you can wear your ignorance like a badge of pride, feeling a perverse sense of achievement for having avoided all those tiresome books everyone keeps pressing on you.
French literature professor Pierre Bayard is a champion of all three approaches. In his tongue-in-cheek cheater’s guide to literature, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2009), he recommends remaining on the fringes of the canon – learning just enough about the classics so as to enter into the critical discussion of them, but not so much as to lose the valuable position of objective distance. Rather than studying specific works in detail, he advises gaining a generalist’s knowledge of “the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment, […which] I shall henceforth refer to as the collective library…it is our mastery of this collective library that is at stake in all discussions about books.”
Yet Bayard cautions about getting too close, as it were, to a great work of literature itself, for “it is only by maintaining a reasonable distance from the book that we may be able to appreciate its true meaning.” Moreover, readers should concentrate on understanding the critical buzz about a book instead of the specifics of plot and character; “If a book is less a book than it is the whole of the discussion about it, we must pay attention to that discussion in order to talk about the book without reading it.”
Even so great a critic as Roland Barthes agreed that it is often enough just to know about a book in order to pass judgment on it – “The book which I haven’t read and which is frequently told to me even before I have time to read it (which is perhaps the reason I don’t read it): this book exists to the same degree.” It’s not so much judging a book by its cover as judging a book by its chatter. And, lest you think it’s only the French who are so audacious as to deliberately not read the books about which they will then make opinionated pronouncements, English journalist Henry Hitchings has produced his own cheater’s guide in the vein of Bayard’s, called Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen?: How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (also from 2009). With all this encouragement to fudge knowledge about books you haven’t actually read, who would bother to read those tedious classics at all? (In case you mistake my sarcastic tone, see my paean to the classics here.)
On (not) being thorough
So let’s say you decide to approach a classic or an It book anyway – who says you have to read every word? Skimming is an art I have tried to develop of late; I even keep separate lists for books read and books skimmed (sorry, but if you only skim it, you can’t count it on your normal reading list!). As Francis Bacon (1561-1626) pronounced in his essay “Of Studies”:
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
Not every book warrants the complete and absorbed reading I described last week. In fact, according to Daniel Pennac’s list in The Rights of a Reader (see a preview as well as Quentin Blake’s charming illustrations here), a reader’s top three inalienable rights are:
1. The right not to read.
2. The right to skip.
3. The right not to finish a book.
Thus every reader should feel no qualms about skimming, nor experience guilt over abandoning a book any time it ceases to feel worthwhile.
Have you ever taken a contrary delight in refusing to read what everyone else says you must? Both Gretchen Rubin (who runs a monthly book club on her “The Happiness Project” blog) and Nick Hornby report that the more people who rapturously recommend a book to them, the less likely they are to actually read it. When announcing her three book club choices for the month, Rubin does not describe or summarize them in any way because “I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds.”
When Hornby, who has an autistic son, was bombarded with about 15 copies of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time from various sources who deemed it the perfect book for him, he recalls (in The Polysyllabic Spree) that “it made me recalcitrant and reluctant, truculent, maybe even perverse.” Indeed, his usual tactic is to
“treat personal book recommendations with the suspicion they deserve. I’ve got enough to read as it is, so my first reaction when someone tells me to read something is to find a way to doubt their credentials, or to try to dredge up a conflicting view.”
As well as taking individual recommendations with a pinch of salt, when deciding on books that will grace his reading diaries column in The Believer magazine, Hornby uses a remarkably simple formula:
“My solution was to try to choose books I knew I would like. I’m not sure this idea is as blindingly obvious as it seems. We often read books that we think we ought to read, or that we think we ought to have read, or that other people think we should read.”
Know thyself; know what books will suit thee best.
A particularly amusing example of glorying in all the books one has defiantly not read can be found in David Lodge’s wonderful academic farce (the second in a trilogy), Changing Places. Lodge introduces a literary parlor game called “Humiliation,” in each round of which a professor confesses to a classic they have never read. In common with the childish “I never” game, the answers become more and more unbelievable until a winner is announced: the English professor who has never read Hamlet. Turning shame into triumph is the method of this literary game.
Bestsellers: seek or destroy?
I can be pretty stubborn when it comes to bestsellers. The more it seems like “everyone” is reading a particular book, the more likely I am to stay away from it. Whether it be the Harry Potter series (of which I have read precisely 1.25 books, and that nearly a decade after the initial craze) or Fifty Shades of Gray (which I wouldn’t touch unless paid a sizable sum), for me a publishing phenomenon tends to provoke repulsion rather than attraction. Perhaps this reflects a lack of curiosity about the experience of the common man, or an unfair inclination to snobbishly dismiss bestsellers based on stereotypes about their awful prose style, formulaic plots, and flat characters?
In any case, my preference is always to steer clear of what the masses are reading. Unless, of course, you manage to uncover a genuinely great book before it becomes famous, so you can have that self-righteous glow that comes from having discovered it first. Hornby remembers being “glad I read [Joshua Ferris] before everybody else, because I would otherwise have been deterred by the hype (and here ‘hype’ is an envious and dismissive substitute for ‘praise’, which is how the word is usually used).”
If you do succeed in enjoying a book before it becomes ridiculously overblown, more power to you. But my approach is to seek out my own hidden gems instead. I justify this to myself as a method of finding good alternatives to what everyone else is reading. So instead of bowing to The Da Vinci Code’s success, I read the adequate literary thrillers The Dante Club and The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl; instead of succumbing to the Twilight series, I read Deborah Harkness’s thinking-girl’s vampire epics A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night. Often, though, it’s best to just avoid the crazes entirely and stick with what will last: solid, well-written books.
Signs of the times
There are a few main drawbacks to bestsellers: they are ephemeral products of their time and place; they serve to reinforce already-held opinions through their unsubtle messages; and they are often, frankly, terrible.
For proof that bestsellers don’t stand the test of time, just have a browse through some of the bestselling fiction of the twentieth century. Ever heard of The Blue Lagoon (1908), by H. de Vere Stacpoole? How about Precious Bane (1924) by Mary Webb? Those are a couple of the works discussed in detail in Claud Cockburn’s 1972 study of British popular fiction, Bestseller. Even top sellers from less than 40 years ago start to sound dated and obscure: Max Ehrlich’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1973), Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975), or M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions (1979); whereas those that do still sound familiar – The Godfather, The Exorcist, Love Story, and Jaws – are, arguably, only still in the public consciousness because of their movie adaptations, not remembered as notable novels in their own right.
Why don’t bestsellers last? Cockburn explains that they serve a particular sociological function in their time and place: “Book X satisfied a need, and expressed and realized emotions and attitudes to life which the buyers and borrowers did not find expressed or realized elsewhere” such that “bestsellers really are a mirror of ‘the mind and face’ of an age.” This makes them useful artifacts for social and literary historians, but even as early as 1922, critics were realizing that for the reader not to be “tricked constantly by his [sic] own emotions into supposing that what is timely is therefore fine, and what moves him is therefore great, he must distinguish between the elements of popularity and the essence of greatness” (that was Yale professor Henry Seidel Canby, in an article entitled “Why Popular Novels are Popular”).
Mistaking what is “timely” – what everyone is reading at a particular time – for what will last keeps money flooding in to the same few bestselling titles. Thus, as John Sutherland puts it in Bestsellers, his survey of the most popular books of the 1970s, a bestseller is distinguished by “the all-or-nothing nature of its achievement. It is commonly the book that everyone is reading now, or that no one is reading anymore.” Even a decade or two can mean the difference between overwhelming celebrity and utter obscurity.
Another problem with bestsellers is that they tend to have obvious, biased messages; there is nary a nuance to be felt. In Why We Read What We Read: A Delightfully Opinionated Journey Through Contemporary Bestsellers, Lisa Adams and John Heath argue that “readers are increasingly attracted to simple, univocal reinforcements of hunches, rather than to complex, challenging efforts to search for real answers.” By devouring bestsellers, these readers seek out confirmation of what they already think; they wish to be comforted with the familiar rather than confronted with the new.
Moreover, when it comes to bestsellers, sentimentality and a lack of subtlety often go hand in hand; as Adams and Heath declare, “we live [in] an age searching for sincerity, no matter how heavy-handed.” Sutherland notes that “bestsellers invariably have upliftingly happy or providential endings,” proof that they are not meant to reflect the realities of life but to provide false security and coziness: “They are anodynes. They soothe…they clearly make lives livable.”
Often transient and trite – is it any wonder that critics are snobbish about bestsellers? There are, of course, exceptions to every rule: Hilary Mantel’s two outstanding works of Tudor fiction, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, are both Man Booker Prize winners but have also made it onto bestseller lists in the US and UK. As Anthony Burgess conceded in The Novel Now:
“Very occasionally the best book and the bestseller coincide, but generally the books that make the most money are those which lack both style and subtlety and present a grossly over-simplified picture of life. Such books are poor art, and life is too short to bother with any art that is not the best of its kind.”
Canby confirms that a bestseller “may be great, but does not need to be. It is usually a weak book, no matter how readable…and succeeds by…number and timeliness instead of by fineness and truth.” All too often, economic success and popularity quash any considerations of quality.
What about you?
“The term ‘bestseller’ is often used in a pejorative sense. It evokes the notion that more people read bad books than good books.” (Cockburn)
“It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness.” (Carl Wilson, Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste)
So what’s your strategy? Do you read every bestseller out there to figure out what all the fuss is, only to be disappointed at their mediocrity? Do you superciliously shun bestsellers altogether? Or do you employ the cheater’s tools of skimming and learning about classics and It books, just enough to be able to spout opinions about them in company? Faced with all the books everyone ‘should’ read and all the books everyone does read, you, temperate reader, will have to find your own middle way through.
Next time: I consider reading together: whether it’s book clubs, “Big Read” events, or city or college “One Book” schemes, there are particular constraints and delights to the communal reading experience.