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Why We Read What We Read Paperback – Sep 1 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
What does an analysis of PW's and USA Today's bestsellers lists tell us about the values, desires and fears of the American reading public? [R]eaders are increasingly attracted to simple, univocal reinforcements of hunches rather than complex... answers, say the authors. Heath (coauthor, Who Killed Homer?) and first-time author Adams go on to analyze book after book to show its superficiality and failure to challenge readers' assumptions; they pick in particular on Dan Brown. The low-carb craze was about simplistic answers to psychological and physiological issues. J.K. Rowling and John Grisham reduce the world to good vs. evil, eliminating the need to understand conflicting points of view; Laura Schlessinger's and John Gray's success reveal an American public longing for traditional male-female roles. Disaster books, even literary titles like Into Thin Air, demonstrate an American appetite for redemptive stories of survival in the face of tragedy, and the red-hot Da Vinci Code scored by manipulating our lust for controversy and conspiracy and our need to feel (without actually being) educated. This effort is larded with data that will be obvious to publishing professionals and of little interest to general readers. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Back Cover
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.
Some of our favorite (and revealing) topics include:
* Repeating the Obvious:
Diet, Wealth, and Inspiration
* Black and White and Read All Over:
Good and Evil in Bestselling Adventure Novels and Political Nonfiction
* Soul Train:
Religion and Spirituality
* Hopefully Ever After:
Love, Romance and Relationships
* Reading for Redemption:
Trials and Triumphs in Literary Fiction and Nonfiction
* Controversy and Conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code
Explore the nature of what and how we read-and what it means for our psyches, our society and our future.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Fortunately for us, John Heath and Lisa Adams have attempted to answer these questions in their book Why We Read What We Read: A Delightfully Opinionated Journey Through Bestselling Books.
Heath and Adams read nearly 200 books in order to answer why we read what we read. Their purpose, as stated in the introduction, was to "provide a glimpse into the current state of the national psyche by looking closely at the books Americans buy---specifically, those books they have bought in the greatest numbers since 1990," because "these books resonate with broad segments of the reading public" (5).
This was quite an undertaking and there is so much in this book that I had some difficulty writing a review that covered it all!
In the introduction, Heath and Adams laid out their plan of attack: which books were considered bestsellers, how they decided on categories, which books they excluded from their list (old books made popular again by being made into movies, memoirs & biographies, reference books, and cookbooks), and which years to research. Heath and Adams sorted the rest of the books into 4 categories: hardcover fiction, hardcover non-fiction, trade paperback (fiction & non-fiction), and mass market paperback (fiction).
Why We Read What We Read is laid out in six chapters, not including the introduction and the appendix:
*Chapter One is titled "The Obvious: Diet, Wealth, and Inspiration." This chapter focused on books about, obviously, diets, how to become focused and wealthy, and become inspired. As Heath and Adams noted, "of course everyone wants to be slim, rich, and motivated, and always has" (23). Lately, the craze has been for "low-carb" diets.
*Chapter Two is "Black and White and Read All Over: Good and Evil in Bestselling Adventure Novels and Political Nonfiction." Heath and Adams discussed authors such as John Grisham, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling, and how the concepts of good and evil were treated in such popular novels. There was a large section about Harry Potter (one of my favorites!). The second half of the chapter detailed various political books that have made the top sales lists in recent years.
*Chapter Three is called "Hopefully Ever After: Love, Romance, and Relationships." As you could guess, this chapter was all about relationships and romance, especially romance novels. Americans have been very interested in receiving advice from people such as John Gray, Dr. Laura, and Dr. Phil. We also buy tons and tons and tons of romance fiction (guilty!)---romance novels "comprised over half (54.9%) of all popular paperback fiction sold in North America---and almost forty percent of all popular fiction sold" (116).
*Chapter Four is titled "Soul Train: Religion and Spirituality." This chapter is split between traditional Christian and "New Age" books. Heath and Adams wrote that all the books in this chapter share "three fundamental conclusions:
-Everything in life has meaning; there are no accidents.
-Love is the answer.
-What other gurus say is almost always wrong" (175).
These books include The Prayer of Jabez, The Purpose Driven Life, Conversations With God, and The Celestine Prophecy, plus the Left Behind series. Apparently many of us are seeking spiritual guidance.
*Chapter Five is "Reading for Redemption: Trials and Triumphs in Literary Fiction and Nonfiction." The books in this chapter, such as Cold Mountain, The Kite Runner, Into Thin Air, and The Nanny Diaries give readers the opportunity to step in to another person's life and read about their hardships and victories. We are looking for answers to life's difficulties and hope to learn from others' mistakes.
*Chapter Six is called "Deciphering 'Da Code': Conclusions." This final chapter spent a lot of time on The Da Vince Code, but also served as the conclusion.
Heath and Adams are concerned that we are reaching for books that provide quick answers and easy fixes, rather than taking the time to delve deeply, to think, to reflect. They advocate reading points-of-view other than those we already hold. They believe there ought to be a louder cry "raised for a renewed emphasis on the kinds of humanistic education that can strengthen our country's democratic soul. Good reading evokes a kind of transformation, and that, ultimately, is what any good education should do too. The study of . . . literature . . . sharpens (and changes) minds, opens hearts, emboldens souls. A literary immersion in different worlds and powerful ideas---whether through fiction or nonfiction---is unsettling, challenging, inspirational and healthily subversive" (270-271). Most of all, we need to continue reading and exploring.
Any bibliophile would find Why We Read What We Read a book worth reading. I thought it was quite interesting to come across books and authors I recognized and/or loved, and also to see how many books I had never heard of that had made the bestsellers lists.
Heath and Adams did a remarkable job reading, categorizing, and comparing so many books. Scattered through out the pages were little tidbits that caught their attention or funny items that were sort of editorial comments on themes. These were always interesting and amusing to read. The book was also quite funny to read, as Heath and Adams have a great sense of humor. I especially enjoyed the Harry Potter and literary jokes (One of my favorites, about HP and the Atkins Diet---"Only Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone outsold [the New Diet Revolution] over that period, and we think that's at least in part because the young magician became a secret hero to the low-carbers. Sad, gaunt little Harry was locked in a closet most of his life by his evil relatives and thereby deprived of many of the fruits, cereals, breads . . ." (27).)
My only major dislike of Why We Read What We Read was Heath and Adams' assessment of political books. They have a very obvious bias toward liberal authors. The majority of the political section was spent criticizing conservative authors as unthinking, mean, and narrow-minded. The liberal authors, in contrast, wrote the equivalent of "schoolyard taunts" (104) and books that were often funny. Now, I am a Conservative and I admit that I am biased towards Conservative authors, but I know that those liberal authors mentioned in this book are not all sweetness and light, and nor do they just call conservatives "mean" and "bratty!" I would have prefered Heath and Adams write a more accurate and balanced section on political books. Even the section on "non-partisan" political books contains authors that I wouldn't consider non-partisan, plus digs at others I would consider non-partisan.
I do agree with Heath and Adams that we all need to read more books and read books that we do not necessarily agree with. By doing that, we widen our points of view, learn new information, and either expand or reaffirm our beliefs. It is important to do these things and to be well-read individuals.
The appendix contains about 50 pages of best seller lists, which would be the perfect place to find new books to read. I am glad the authors included the lists because it is interesting to see which books I am familiar with and expected to see and which books I have never heard of and am surprised to see.
I recommend Why We Read What We Read for anyone particularly interested in books . . . or anyone not really interested in books. As I wrote, we can all find something new and challenging to read. This book provides an excellent starting place.
Authors Lisa Adams and John Heath give, at times, hilarious insight into the specific bestselling books they discuss, such as when they passingly mention The Da Vinci Code in their first chapter: "It's speedy, simple, full of secrets. It drop-kicks its characters into a hair-raising search for truth of worldwide, if not otherworldly, significance. It's not only about sex and religion, but about sex IN religion. And, come on, it has a killer albino." And that's just the appetizer, because they provide a funny, fascinating, full dissection of "Da Code" in their final chapter---where, on a more general level, they also provide heavier insights about American reading habits: "But we seem to need a guru, an expert, to steer us ahead. . . . Now we seem to turn to popular books for the same easy resolution of life's tensions and ambiguities. . . .So many of them [bestsellers] are written not to explore issues, as our timeless texts were, but to encourage readers to look to them [bestselling books]for--and expect nothing more than--straightforward answers and reassurance. Our reading [of bestsellers] too often simplifies, rather than enriches; . . . answers, rather than questions; . . . accuses, rather than seeks to understand."
Lisa and John also discuss "our diminishing ability to read well" in a thoughtful, easy-going way that E. D. Hirsch, Jr., (author of bestselling Cultural Literacy  and The Knowledge Deficit , and the founder of Core Knowledge Foundation) would cheer.
WWRWWR is full of insight and entertainment, a veritable cornucopia of "instruction and delight," as the NeoClassicists would say.
Best book I've ever read on bestsellers.
It ought to become a bestseller itself--and for all the right reasons!
More than knowing what made the bestseller's list with in each of the categories the authors segregated the lists into, what I found most enjoyable was the authors' take (their simplifications for me, I guess) on the various books. I thought the authors were good when providing their "opinions" as in, why the various diet books did well; but they were at their best when their "opinions" were used to review a book such as Spencer Johnson's, "Who Moved My Cheese?" It was these 'Cliff Notes' versions of several bestselling books, sprinkled with ample opinions, which were most enjoyable and down right entertaining. Quite frankly, I would rush to buy a book devoted entirely to the authors' satirical reviews of current bestsellers.
Dennis DeWilde, author of "The Performance Connection"
This book is not a scientific survey of the American public's reading habits for the years 1990-2006. I suppose the introduction might sucker you into thinking that the book is a sociological writeup--if you're not particularly acute, and somehow manage to miss the authors' powerful current of sarcasm--but in fact the very subtitle of the work gives the game away. Heath and Adams are not disinterested scientists (doubtful if such mythical beings exist), but propagandists in the cause of intellectual curiosity, understanding, and humanism. The aforementioned sarcasm is characteristic of the authors, but it is also a tool used to probe popular books and genres, and to engage in a non-sappy fashion the interest of the reader in a weighty topic. Pondering why it is that so many "literary" works of fiction are read predominately by women, the authors give the following:
"Certain novels are obviously exclusionary, such as The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood...or The Red Tent....(And in fact we would advise most anyone to avoid "sisterhoods" of all kinds and any use of the word "red" that might refer to stained underpants.) But most literary bestsellers do not contain scrapbooks, excessive weeping, or menstrual tents." (P. 250)
You may have winced if you are fond of the abovementioned books, but this passage is a funny one which leads into a thought-provoking rumination on theme and gender. It is fairly representative of the larger work. The final conclusion, that reading material that challenges us "can still provide our best shot at a transformative experience, altering our opinions and enlarging our sensitivities" (p. 276), rings true.
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