Thursday, February 2, 2012

Why We Read What We Read by Adams/Heath

Overall, this was a very nice treatment of the latest trends in America’s choice of reading as evidenced by book sales. The authors were funny and insightful, and worked hard to interpret the patterns of book sales into a portrait of the modern zeitgeist. It started out great, but became predictable and belabored in parts. Too much time was spent critiquing some books, the choice of which selection to apply a lengthy critique often seemed arbitrary (based on the authors interest and not exclusively on sales), and some books that I was really interested in learning more about were barely mentioned. I realize they had to lean on their discretion to keep the book brief enough to be readable, but it just felt imbalanced in parts. Much of it was synopses of books everyone has already read or heard about, or, in my case, books I’d never want to read. For instance, I’m not all that interested in reading John Gray’s Men Are From Mars…, much less Adams and Heath’s 20 page synopses/critique of it. Whoa. I’d pay not to read either.

They finally brought it back to the real objective of the work near the end, but it took some disciplined skimming to get me there. The findings were fairly obvious: we read to pass time, we read to ‘effortlessly confirm our own convictions’ (Jung), we read for easy secrets, and we read to vicariously experience adventure without the associated risks. I suppose I was attracted to the title because I was hoping for more insight into these principles, and not merely a run-down of sales receipts.

I did find the chapter “Soul Train” to be an interesting case-study of the direction that works on the subject of faith/spirituality are taking and how the world perceives their success or failure. On the whole, even with Rick Warren’s Purpose and Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer, much of the evangelical output is the old ideas repackaged with the ubiquitous ‘go to church’ ingredient. Adams and Heath write that however sincere these Christian authors may very well be, it will always be a challenge to hear the whispers of truth from out the mounds of gold these writers are amassing. No one can argue that Adams and Heath have done their homework here. I mean, why, just why, would any critic, in his or her right mind read all of the Left Behind series (12 books!!) just to moan about it multiple times and offer the same conclusion as with many other works by the fundamentalist Christian movement? The authors’ verdict: people who can think the sovereign God plans these horrors and still loves us are “succumbing to a kind of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome” by never questioning their torturer. All of the survivors of God’s wrath seem to agree, “Man, I’m glad I’m going to Heaven, but why does God have to be such a nasty prick sometimes?” Brilliant…but it took Adams/Heath 12 books to figure that out?

There are some nifty lists in the back that provide an overview of bestselling books from 1993-2006, but that might be a reason why some may not read the book: it’s outdated by about 5 years. I knew it was fairly outdated when I bought it from a used book sale, but I was hoping to learn something from it nonetheless. Which I did.

So what were Adams/Heath’s final words of advice? Read things that may not be comfortable or familiar, and…read more tragedy. Tragedy doesn’t offer easy, platitudinal solutions that we’ve tried over and over again with the same results. Trends in reading suggest that readers want “simple, univocal reinforcements of hunches, rather than complex, challenging efforts to search for real answers.” Tragedy offers dilemmas in which we are psychologically ‘sucked in’ to searching for a subtly elusive answer, and this struggle stays with us long after reading a book without a satisfactory ending. Their finding is that “the most disturbing stories—whether books or films—stay with us the longest and push us to consider and reconsider the most.” The Road, Martin Eden, and Lord Of the Flies come to mind as great examples.

And a very helpful word of warning from Adams/Heath: be careful not to substitute reading for living, as so many do. Reading engages the brain AND the emotions, and can simulate the effects of adventures lived, but from the comfort and safety of the couch. The semblance of personal growth and change one feels as an after-effect to reading is almost powerful enough to offer the illusion you have lived through experiences that you have only heard about, and the counterfeit risks and sensations of suspense, exhilaration, romance or bravura may actually ward off those risks and opportunities for growth and expansion that reality has to offer. If we read more than we act, we face the very real hazard of “finding solace not in change itself, but in the comforting if short-lived experience of reading about it.”

Reader beware.

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