Monday, January 23, 2012

Groupthink book culture

One of the consequences of the concentration in book publishing and the concentration in media is that our mainstream book culture has become extremely narrow. Catering to a largely female market focusing on book clubs has reinforced a tendency to create a buzz about a relatively small number of books that educated people are pleased to find everyone has heard of.

Whether it's The Help or The Art of Fielding or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, relatively mediocre books skyrocket to a disproportionate fame and commercial success because of this groupthink approach to book culture.

My neighbor recently recommended How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Of course, he didn't actually rattle off this unwieldy title, but rather said "I'm reading this great book about Montaigne," and I knew immediately which book he meant because I had downloaded it on my Kindle, even though I could tell him neither the title nor the author.

Now, Montaigne, who turned the French word for "attempts" into the literary genre of essays, has been illuminating readers for centuries. But it took a new book with a lot of buzz to bring him to the attention of my septuagenarian neighbor.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with any of this but I do find myself bristling with resistance against this type of cultural regimentation. People are too unwilling to pick up a book that doesn't have a buzz or try an author they have never heard of. So many books, so little time, etc. What difference does it really make which books you read? If the criterion was literary greatness then everyone would read the established canons of great literature and not waste time on any of these new books. Otherwise, the only difference between these bestselling titles and hundreds of others like them in any given year is that they for one reason or another get a lot of buzz.

Perhaps the cream does rise to the top and these books do distinguish themselves by being better written, more insightful or more entertaining. Given my experience dipping blindly onto the remainder shelves or into ebooks, I'm not convinced. I have made discoveries among these books that I think are the equal if not better than many of the trendy books. I think you can get an idea from reading the first page or two whether a book has potential, and you will either be vindicated or disappointed if you take the book and read on.

So why, given the millions of readers in this country, are such a relatively small number of books read and talked about? Why aren't book clubs adventures in exploration instead of reading the same books everyone else has read, and now even using discussion questions crafted by the publisher?

We have many forms of diversion -- films, television, theater, YouTube and Facebook. Our time is not so precious that we have to be careful to read only those books that a consensus of popular opinion has judged to be acceptable.

That's why the ebook revolution is such a great thing. It is progress, really, that people now are able to read umpteen books about vampire teenagers that are sprinkled with typos and grammatical errors. Readers enjoy these books, they are entertaining to them. They don't have to wait for the cachet from the New York Times Book Review or a meaningless blurb on a jacket cover to tell them they want to read this book. And hopefully soon people will be talking to their friends about and recommending books no one else has ever heard of, instead of same tiresome list of books contained at one point or another in the 10 pages of bestseller lists in the NYTBR.

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