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June 29, 2009

Best Sellers: Why Read Them?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Confession time again.

I can't remember the last time I bought for myself a non-fiction book on a best seller list. I know that I bought autobiographies of Lee Iacocca (the Ford and Chrysler honcho) and Chuck Yeager (the guy who broke the sound barrier), those books from 25 years or so ago. But after that....

As for fiction, I did buy every Harry Potter book. That's probably because I've always had a soft spot for science fiction where another world/civilization is made fascinating thanks to the imagination and skill of the writer. The Potter books aren't sci-fi, but they had the quality I just mentioned. In other words, I didn't buy them because they were ultra-hyper-mega best sellers: that factor was incidental.

I've mentioned before that I read little fiction, this largely because I don't like getting hooked to the point my sleep suffers. So the Potter books aside, I can't even guess what the last best selling novel I read was. I did read Drury's "Advice and Consent," Michener's "Hawaii" (because I'd just visited there for the first time) and Heller's "Catch-22." Oh, and I did read "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" for a reason I no longer can begin to comprehend. These were read when the books reached paperback. I'm not counting classical fiction written many years before I got to it such as Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" or Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series. To summarize, as nearly as I can tell, I read my last non-Potter best selling novel before I turned 40.

I do read a lot of non-fiction. But not best sellers. More precisely, I now never buy a book simply because it is on a best seller list. I might have read some books in recent years that might have shown up on one list or another, but that would have been happenstance. Why is that?

It's because I buy books to get information in greater depth than can be provided in magazine articles, internet postings and outlines. Yet many non-fiction best sellers strike me as beefed-up versions of what I just mentioned or else deal with subjects I'm not deeply interested in. If I've already gotten the basic information in concise form elsewhere, it makes no sense to buy a book on the subject. If I'm not presently interested in a subject, taking time to read about it deprives me of the time I would spend learning about things I deem more important or interesting. We are far past the point where an individual can be conversant with everything, so I feel little guilt about ignoring Things I Should Learn About. This doesn't mean I'll never again buy a non-fiction best-seller, it's just that the odds against doing so are high.

On reflection, what I've been discussing is really about life cycle stages and how they can affect one's behavior. Between my mid-teens and mid-thirties, I felt it was important to stay au courant. That might have had something to do with ego and self-esteem as well as for social reasons (being "with it"). At the same time, I was reading plenty of non-best seller material. In both cases, I was building what might be called intellectual capital.

Nowadays, I have a good deal of that intellectual capital in place and my need for more is selective. Also, I don't feel a strong need to be au courant when dealing with, say, twentysomethings. I deal with them as adults and believe that if I tried really hard to be as hip as them, I'd be pretty ridiculous in their eyes.

So ends my soul-searching for today.

What's your take regarding best-selling books, be they fiction or not? Life cycle observations are welcome as well.



posted by Donald at June 29, 2009



I know what you mean. My own tastes in reading have moved much more strongly in favor of non-fiction in the last few years. Many of my purchases come from used book stores, where the bestseller issue is a non-factor. But when I see a book that captures my eye, and it happens to be a bestseller, I have to stop and think: will this book be as meaty and in-depth as I would like? Will it put the events in a historical context? Or will it be dumbed down for today's readers; will it try to tell yesterday's events using today's cultural mores? Will it be more superficial? Will it be (red-flag warning) "accessible"?

I caution to add that an accessible history doesn't disqualify a book for me, nor does its bestselling status. But as I said, it does make me pause and do more research about the author, about past books, credentials, possible biases. I pay much more attention to the blurbs on the back cover, to see if I recognize any of the names, and to check the sources at the end of the book to see if they contain other authors whom I respect.

So a successful book doesn't necessarily mean I won't buy it, but by no means does it guarantee that I will.

Posted by: Mitchell on June 29, 2009 7:27 PM

To my aging eyes, bestseller status is almost a negative. For one thing, I increasingly find that my own tastes are at odds with the masses (or to put it less delicately, most people are idiots). For another, while some books are big sellers because they're grand (e.g., Harry Potter), others are so because the author was already famous and/or the publisher gave it a serious promo budget (such as paying the bookseller to put a stack in a prime area of the store). These caveats are delightfully described in Michael Allen's "The Truth About Writing," the location of which Michael Blowhard kindly linked on October 30, 2007, in this very blog.

Posted by: James O. on June 29, 2009 8:57 PM

My wife and I have taken to the cheerful whimsy of Sandy McCall Smith's fables - the Botswana detective agency yarns, the Edinbugh tenement stories, and so on. Good humour, intelligent jokes and transparent decency all add to the pleasure. Whether they appeal to The Young I neither know nor care.

Posted by: dearieme on June 30, 2009 6:49 AM

Red October was my last bestseller. I skimmed that one in about two hours. About 25 years ago I did the same for one of those pre-historic tomes, which I can't even remember the name of now. I've been burned too many times to even THINK about reading any more of that schlock. If I'm really interested in a book's subject or admire the author, I MIGHT dip into the bestseller list.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 30, 2009 11:32 AM

What you describe is pretty much the cycle: as you age, you lean towards non-fiction, and you're more selective.

As there are only so many plots in the world, eventually in the fiction world you begin to run out of new experiences. The last novel I read that was unique as "A Dirty Job" by Christopher Moore, and even that was the "people assume the grim reaper role" story first done (as far as I'm aware) by Piers Anthony ("On a Pale Horse"), but Moore's takes a Buddhist view of the afterlife, which gives it a tasty spin. And he's funny as hell, which helps. Think Vonnegut meets Monty Python.

But, I pound through about 5 non-fiction books for every fiction book anymore.

The bestseller lists for non-fiction are useless, because most of it is just partisan bickering. Outside of an election cycle, who needs it?

Posted by: yahmdallah on June 30, 2009 11:50 AM

Well into my 30's, until family and career obligations became so absorbing, I averaged about a book a day, and half of that was fiction. Now I manage about half of that, but only about 5% is fiction, and half of that is the re-reading of old favorites. I don't think that change is a (mid-50's)life-stage matter, but more the case that after reading hundreds of novels I began to feel that I was reading the same novel (or at least the same half-dozen novels) over and over. Even if the plot or characterizations were not overtly formulaic, patterns nevertheless emerged and eventually felt like ruts. I suppose it's proverbial that there are only a few stories out there and the rest is elaboration, but for me it took over twenty years for the elaboration to wear thin. And now it all seems very thin, indeed. Since fiction now longer ever strikes me as new, I might as well re-read elaborations that I know that I like. Most new fiction I read now has something else to offer, such as accurate historical detail (I can read history all the live long day, every day), or is a farrago of literary items (enjoyable poetry, drinking songs, etc) or even technical mini-essays (Neal Stephenson).

There seems to be a lot of jadedness-with-fiction going around. That might account for why so many of the most popular or acclaimed novels today are bizarrely experimental, given to the grotesque (McCarthy), or prurient (sorry Michael, I find the sexual fantasies of others Too Much Information). Or it may be because of the numbness endemic to an age of chronic over-stimulation (Spengler's theory), or because modern man's separation from God has made him aesthetically deaf (O'Connor's theory). All I know is that I would rather read Barchester Towers for the tenth time rather than almost anything on the New Fiction shelf.

Posted by: bald cypress on June 30, 2009 12:05 PM

"As there are only so many plots in the world, eventually in the fiction world you begin to run out of new experiences."

Agreed, which is a big reason plot doesn't really interest me most of the time. And so where fiction is concerned, I usually lean towards the dreaded lit-fic side, where plot is unashamedly less important than word-craft and ruminating. Disclaimer: THIS IS A PERSONAL PREFERENCE. If you like plot and hate lit-fic, that's fine with me.

For movies, I've found in the past few years that I have almost no interest in watching new ones outside of documentaries. It came as a shock because I've always been a pretty big movie buff. But now, aside from movies for the kids, my Netflix queue is filled with documentaries.

Posted by: JV on June 30, 2009 1:40 PM

I'm almost always in the process of reading several books, and now that you bring up the subject, I realize there are usually three or four non-fiction books I'm making my way through for every one fiction book.

Probably the explanation is that these days I mostly read fiction for the author's style, not for the story or insight into the human condition. I don't care if a novel is deeply sensitive or (in the case of detective novels) who done what to whom. As long as the writer has an interesting way with words, whether it's Vladimir Nabokov or Ross Macdonald, it works for me.

There don't seem to be that many novels that are a pleasure to read just for the language. But there will be enough to last me the rest of this lifetime.

Non-fiction is graded more leniently if it seems to have a good grasp of the facts and thoughtful interpretation. When the writing has literary flair as well, that's a bonus, but as long as the subject is clearly presented I won't insist on it being a species of belles lettres.

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 30, 2009 4:35 PM

Wikipedia and the internet in general have managed to satisfy my curiosity about various individuals or subjects. My reading of books has fallen off sharply in the last few years.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on June 30, 2009 5:31 PM

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