Thursday, September 4, 2008

Keeping up with the Joneses

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Suggested by JM:

I was looking through books yesterday at the shops and saw all the Twilight books, which I know basically nothing about. What I do know is that I’m beginning to feel like I’m the *only* person who knows nothing about them.

Despite being almost broke and trying to save money, I almost bought the expensive book (Australian book prices are often completely nutty) just because I felt the need to be ‘up’ on what everyone else was reading.

Have you ever felt pressured to read something because ‘everyone else’ was reading it? Have you ever given in and read the book(s) in question or do you resist? If you are a reviewer, etc, do you feel it’s your duty to keep up on current trends?


Maybe I'm a snob. Probably. But I have the reverse reaction - if everyone else is reading it, I'm sure I will never like it. There are a few people's opinions that I trust and when they say - you have to read this - then I do. So when I saw everyone and I mean everyone was reading Audrey Nifnegger's The Time Traveller's Wife - those little girls legs with the knee socks and Mary Jane's were on every lap on the subway - I thought why bother? It can't be good - it's popular. But when, about two years, later, an avid reading friend couldn't believe I hadn't read it (because - hadn't everyone?) and had gone on and on about how great it was, then I picked it up. I don't care if everyone else does it, has it, or has read it (I haven't owned a television since 1988), that doesn't make it good. In fact, if something is too popular it's likely mediocre because appealing to common taste brings everything down to what is most average and safe. This is probably some kind of defense mechanism left over from being "different" from the mainstream through my whole childhood, but now I feel it makes me much less susceptible to commonly held opinion, more resistant to hype or advertising. It makes me encounter each experience critically and listen closely to decide whether it's a thing I want, an opinion that represents me, a book I would enjoy reading, a product I really need to buy. What does pressure me into reading a book, and this is usually with "great" books - i.e. Remembrance of Things Past, Ulysses... is greed. Greed for knowledge. When select critical readers I know (like Sheila) have read something and have found value in it - basically I think a great book gives you a new way to see the world - then I get greedy for that information. I am a greedy pig for knowledge. And not all these readers have taste that I think of as a perfect match for mine. I'd say Sheila and I have a great many things in common, but we have some real differences too and our life experiences are in no way spitting images of each other. But that is precisely why I value her suggestions. I would never have read Ryszard Kapuscinski, for example, if it weren't for her! I have to keep up with certain minds but not with the Joneses.

9 comments:

Smilingsal said...

Reading time is too precious to read dribble.

Barbara H. said...

I feel much the same way -- usually if it is popular I am more inclined not to read it, but I do value certain other people's recommendations.

J.S. Peyton said...

I think the only book I've ever been pressured into reading because it was so popular was "The Da Vinci Code" and that was at least a year and half after it had been released. I knew it was going to be awful and was just curious about just how awful.

Other than that, I too resist reading popular books. Thus, among other things, I've never read any Harry Potter book nor any of the Twilight books.

Imani said...

I'm susceptible to popular books for a few reasons: if a friend/blogger I trust recommends them, if it's in a favourite genre of mine and particularly if it's difficult to find what I consider to be good books in that genre.

So I tried "Time Traveller's Wife" because a very close friend of mine loved it to death. (I wasn't similarly impressed but I didn't think it was a waste of time. Sometimes it's worth it just for the book talk.) I did the Harry Potter thing because I love children's/YA fantasy and I'm something of an Anglophile when it comes to British lit. (That worked out.)

I get burned most often with romance because too few credible reviewers give it attention so that turns out to be a crap shoot experience. Luckily, I can tell whether a book is worth a shot a few pages in (often from the first page simply because so many books are cliched redundancies).

Imani said...

I forgot to say that the "Twilight" books should be just my kind of trash read (vampires + romance) except that it sounds like those early 70s/80s Harlequins where the women are weak and the men are abusive. I passed through that reading stage by the time I was 13/14.

Matt said...

I think we're all snobs in our own way. I'll deliberately snub anything that lingers on bestseller chart or bounces over over critics' radar. I also feel obliged to dig out good books that are overlooked.

Book Zombie said...

I have to agree that an over-hyped book will turn me off just because it becomes so mainstream. But I think it has a lot to do with my paranoia about how certain authors get their books into the spotlight. My example of this is Stephen King - he has written some amazing stories, but some of them are pure trash. Why then does everyone of his books become a bestseller? His name, money, influence, and also the lack of mainstream publishing houses that give young horror authors a chance. Maybe, maybe not, who knows for sure.

estelle said...

Your comment on 'greed for knowledge' struck a chord with me. When I am in second-hand bookshops or op shops, I will always buy an old classic if I don't have a copy, regardless of whether I want to read it immediately or not. (Usually not.) It's also something to do with the corporeality of the books, I admit. I want the copy of the book badly.

A friend of mine has a very arbitrary rule which I think is nevertheless germane to this question. He never reads anything that is less than 50 years old. Now, I would never restrict myself in such a fashion, but it's true that if people are still talking about or publishing a book 50 years later then you've got something other than zeitgeist to go on for its recommendation.

I myself sometimes find myself buying 'bestseller' fiction books, like The Time Traveller's Wife either because I have a voucher to a horribly limited chain store or because certain books/authors raise interesting questions (see: James Frey) but they inevitably lie at the bottom of my bookstack, not to be read for, literally, years.

Ted said...

SS - Indeed.

JSP - I too read the DaVinci Code because it was a cultural phenomenon. My god, I sat through an hour's wait in an airport with some guy telling me how he believed it was absolutely true. Hello? Reality check? Can we spell conspiracy theory?

Imani - Welcome back! We all need our trash read, don't we? I know just what you mean. I like YA fantasy myself. I have Jeanette Winterson's attempt sitting on my pile.

BZ - Well, the market is the market and most publishers (except non-profit ones or those that are very strongly mission drive)are going to try to sell books. What is known sells - sad reality. That some people make it their missions to discover and turn others on to their idea of quality or new finds is fantastic but it will always be rare in any realm. Most people follow the crowd. At least our reading doesn't have to!

E - Wow, I could never abide by your friend's rule My tastes are too eclectic, I guess. I need my trash for entertainment, I need my suspense for transatlantic flights, I need my Edwardian fiction for holidays, I need my Middlemarch fix right now!