Sunday, September 09, 2007

Why We Read What We Read: A Delightfully Opinionated Journey Through Bestselling Books by Lisa Adams and John Heath

This book should come with a warning: "Read at your own risk, the authors will not be responsible for any book-buying binge during or after the reading of this book."

Why We Read What We Read by John Heath and Lisa Adams is basically one long book review about nearly 200 bestselling books, most of which the authors actually took the time to read, and as the case usually is, this particular 'book review' has piqued my interest in at least ten books now. Luckily for me, I had already read a few of the other books they mentioned.

This book isn't just a review about the books we read though, it's also a psychological insight to why we choose to read these particular books and make them bestsellers, because there's nothing particularly special about bestsellers after all. Like Heath and Adams said, they only become bestsellers because we buy them.

In Why We Read What We Read, Heath and Adams cover topics by book genre. Chapter one is about the obvious; self-help books, inspirational books, and diet books which include Dr. Atkin's New Diet Revolution, The South Beach Diet, Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Who Moved My Cheese, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Heath and Adams state that while a lot of these books don't actually help or change a person, we all still buy and read them for the hope that the next diet book will be the one to help us lose weight (as if all you need to do to lose weight is to read a diet book) or that reading a particular get-rich-now book will make us instant millionaires.

Chapter two discusses the starkness of our views of good and evil, the "if you're not for us, you're for them" mentality. The John Grishams and Stephen Kings come under this section. We love their books because they give us a clear, black and white picture of good and evil. The protagonist is good; the antagonist is evil, simple as that. Even though sometimes the protagonist has many flaws, we can empathize with them because we know they're good people deep down inside. But those evil antagonists, they don't have hearts — they're just evil through and through. It's the same with the political nonfiction. The left wingers say that they're good and the right wingers are evil, the right wingers say they are good and the left wingers are evil. Either way, they're both right and wrong.

Chapter three is for the hopeless romantics. Romance, whether historical, contemporary, Regency, or otherwise is one of the bestselling genres, and I'm not surprised. I can read seven romance novels in the time it takes me to read one literary one. Of course, there's the happily ever after factor that all of us can't help but be sappy for. We all love happy love stories and most romance novelists are just too happy to give it to us. Unfortunately, most of us don't really have happy real life love stories, hence the bestselling nonfiction books on relationships, which scare me with some of the not really practical advice they give.

Chapter four is my favorite and by far the one that probably will cause the most debates and indignation. Christians and New Agers battle it out with their literary works like the Christian-themed Left Behind series which use a fictionalized account of an apocalypse to get the message across that either you believe in God and Jesus and worship them with all your heart, mind, body, and soul, or God abandons you. And then there's the New Age-themed Conversations With God series where Neale Donald Walsch talks to a loving, generous, supportive God who wants you to make your own choices and be happy. It's kind of obvious which side I'm on, isn't it? To be fair, the Left Behind series do address the doubts and questions that cynics have, but saying things like, "I'll do it even if I don't understand it" just isn't satisfactory to my infinite curiosity and quest for knowledge and understanding, so I stay on the New Age side of the fence.

Chapter five is about the trials and triumphs that people face in literary fiction; guilt, and then redemption, or surviving through abuse, addictions, and other hardships, and then triumphing over them, or sometimes not. Oprah is especially good with these books; she picked 43 books of literary fiction between 1996 and 2002 for her book club. Some of the books selected include Ursula Hegi's Stones from the River, which is about a dwarf living during the Holocaust and the trials she faces with being different and living in a difficult time, and She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb, which is about a girl struggling with an eating disorder. I've read both these books, and I absolutely loved them both. I don't watch Oprah often, but I think it's great that her book club has spurred so many non-readers to read. Not all of Oprah's selections turn out to be great though, so you shouldn't read a book just because she says so.

Chapter six is dedicated to The Da Vinci Code, and is basically a summary of the conclusions the authors got from analyzing the bestselling books that we have been reading from 1991 to 2005. The bottom line that Heath and Adams got to is that a lot of us readers don't like people challenging our views and our dreams.

We read political non-fiction, but only the ones which tell us what we want to hear, we're not really open to looking at the other side's perspective. If we do read the other side's story, we say they're liars. That's why the mysteries and thrillers get to us too; it's us, the good guys, versus them, the bad guys. It's the same with spiritual and religious non-fiction. New Agers most likely will not read Christian literature, and vice versa. We read self-help books because we want to believe that there is a book out there that can change our lives, because we're too lazy to actually change it on our own. I don't necessarily believe this to be true because I have read some which, while not having changed my life, did help me improve a little bit. There is a reason they are called 'self' help books after all, the books don't help you if you don't want to help yourself. Romances are important to us because we want to believe that there is a happily ever after. We want to believe in dreams, in love, in destiny. Romance novels give us all of that and more. Don't tell us that there's no such thing as happily ever after, we're not going to buy that book. We read literary fiction about the hardships others go through so we feel better that our lives aren't as bad as theirs, and if they triumph, we feel inspired, we feel good because we know that there is strength in the human spirit, the human spirit cannot be beaten.

Like I said, while I don't necessarily agree with all the authors' views, I do find some of them to be true and insightful. It is a very interesting look at the books, and consequently the ideas and opinions that have pre-dominated our thoughts in the last fifteen years. It will start you thinking about the books you've read and what they may say about you. It will introduce you to a lot of books that you may not have been aware of, even if they are in the bestselling lists, and I guarantee you that before you've finished reading this book, you'll probably go out and buy at least a couple of the books mentioned. At last count, I have fourteen new books I want to read. Well, there goes my paycheck.


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