The world may be full of fourth-rate writers
but it's also full of fourth-rate readers.
~ Stan Barstow ~
makes a book good? Why do we value some
books or genres over others? As I said
earlier, I will be the first to admit that I am a book snob. I see people reading romance novels and
instead of being happy that they are reading, I judge them for their
selection. I was looking for a book to
help me with my fear of flying in the self-help section a few months ago and
despite the fact that I was hundreds of miles away from home, I was still
looking around to make sure no one could see me. At the same time, I’m a sucker for young
adult books and feel no shame in reading them even though others tease me for
it. I also have been known to read some
chick lit (very different from romance) when at the beach, but after reading
one of these “less-important” genres, I always feel that it is necessary to
read a classic or a smart contemporary novel to balance out my reading.
you look at the top-selling books, they always differ from the lists of the
best books. The top-selling books
usually consist of some novels mixed in with self-help books and diet
books. The best books are the smart
contemporary novels. If you look at the
2007 bestselling list at amazon.com and compare it with the editor’s pick for
best books of 2007 on the same site, only half of the top ten are the
same. There is a sort of dissonance
between what we value and what we actually read.
Part of me says that people should just read what they enjoy. There is no point in reading Anna Karenina or Wuthering Heights
if you aren’t going to enjoy it. Stick
to the romance if that’s what makes you happy.
But the other part of me wants everyone to read Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights
because I love them so much and they are just good books. This other part of me thinks it is a cop out
to not read challenging books or books that require a little deeper analysis to
enjoy them. To me, part of reading is
the intellectual challenge, but to others, it is just a form of entertainment
and they do not want their entertainment to be hard.
As I mentioned Anna Karenina, I
remembered that a lot of people actually have read this because it was an
Oprah’s Book Club book. For me and many
of my fellow book snobs, that Oprah sticker on a book is hideous. I received Middlesex for Christmas and was relieved when I found that it was
just a sticker and could be removed. One
of my book club friends recently made a good point on the subject. Why should we care if people are only buying
books because of Oprah if it gets them to read it? We can still buy our clean versions and it
gets new people reading books they otherwise would have overlooked. It’s really a win-win situation. Just as the movie versions of books might get
people to read, so does that Oprah sticker.
think the Oprah/movie tie-in discussion reflects the odd value that we give
books. It is the same book whether or
not that Oprah sticker is there, so what makes her edition different? The only thing I can think of is the
readers. Maybe Anna Karenina loses some of its value when too many people read it
or when people who may not really “get it” read it. Maybe we book snobs want to keep these books
for ourselves. Not only are we snobby
but we’re selfish. Maybe we like being
the only ones who have read something.
Maybe romance novels are not “worse” than classic literature. It might just be an entirely extrinsic and
socially constructed thing.
There is also the possibility that people do not express their actual
taste in books. People are always trying
to shape their image and advertising reading tastes is one way to do this. That editor’s pick list on amazon.com may
just be a reflection of the editor’s trying to appear like good editors. Maybe they enjoyed those romance novels just
as much. With the advent of Myspace and
Facebook, it is easy to let people know what books you enjoyed. And don’t we all put the same books in our profiles? Is it really a true reflection of our reading
tastes? I would have to answer that it
is not. It is just a way of presenting
ourselves and controlling how people view us.