I was at a dinner party over the weekend, where I wasn’t even kicked out for being a literary agent. The people at the party were mostly tech types — someone brought a couple of small carved pieces of metal that apparently do something very cool, and after several years of intense studying I might actually be able to tell you what that is.
The problem with these tech types is that they often are also really smart when it comes to books, making me feel very inadequate. Couldn’t they at least be illiterate to even the playing field??? It’s not like I could walk into their jobs and talk about how to algorithm the prime of silicon squared, or whatever the heck it is they do. So sure enough, someone at the party made a very interesting point about the process of buying books.
Her hypothesis, which was offered, by the way, over fabulous homemade chicken and dumplings and mac & cheese courtesy of a future food world star, is that when people buy books it reflects what we want to be. In other words, the process of buying books is aspirational, and what we buy says something about how we see ourselves and what we want to become.
I’m not sure I always agree (after all, one of my recent purchases was Christopher Moore’s YOU SUCK, which hopefully doesn’t suggest that I have a self-esteem crisis), but I thought this topic was provocative enough for a mini-Monday edition of You Tell Me. Does our purchase of books say more about us than meets the eye? Are books merely entertainment or is there something deeper at play, and does how we see ourselves play a role?
Nonsense. I read a book about Jack The Ripper and had no thoughts of wanting to be a serial killer.
We read to take us away from our lives, to be entertained, informed.
These people really need to get out more.
Nathan Bransford says
But Roxan, you’re a writer, are you saying that the books you read have nothing to do with who you are at all? I don’t think they were suggesting that if you read a book about serial killers that you’re going to become a serial killer, but surely there’s something more to what we decide to read than meets the eye.
So, were the dumplings rolled or dropped? You can tell where someone is from by their dumplings.
Okay, the questions. Don’t agree with the hypothesis. We may read certain types of books to escape our mundane lives, but that doesn’t mean we would leave our lives for the world in the book.
I read elf stories as a kid because I wanted a pretty world, with a touch of adventure and romance. I wanted a break from zits, cliques, chores, homework etc. Today I still like to read about elves, but more the Laurell K. Hamilton variety. I like the dark, edgy world she creates along with some really complex characters. Do I want to live in Merry’s world? No, not at all. Nice place to visit while I’m sitting on my sofa drinking a diet coke. Wouldn’t want to stay there.
Does the fact I read Hamilton mean I have a dark streak in my ‘soul’…don’t buy that either. I read them for fun. I read them because I like her writing. I read them because it is better than cleaning house!
Nathan Bransford says
They were dropped (and delicious).
Sounds like someone was trying too hard to be clever and, as we techies might say, orthogonal to the rest of the world.
I read fiction for entertainment and non-fiction for information and entertainment. Both provide a way of escaping from the real world, which, as both techies and non-techies know, sucks.
Most likely she learned from a northern cook/recipe…southern cooks roll their dumplings and slice them like big wide noodles. Did you at least get some cornbread??
My two cents…
Yes, it does have everything to do with…who we want to be, or what we want to know, or a secret fantasy, or maybe that we just want to laugh ourselves silly! It is in relation to who we are though, because I can guarantee you that I have no desire to read a book printed in a language that i can’t read anymore than I have a desire to pick up a book about say, nuclear engineering…It has to have some relation to who I am, some degree of context. So there.
I will admit that I have refrained from purchasing certain books because I do not want them on my bookshelf.
I browse titles at other other people’s home and wind up making judgments about their literary tastes based on what they have on display.
Therefore, I refuse to have anything that says, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide” or anything with “Dummies” in the title.
I would have recoiled in horror if anyone in my childhood referred to me as an idiot or a dummy, so why would I want to self identify with that designation as an adult?
I fully realize that those series sell boodles of copies, but their success has not been as a result of my support.
Does that help?
I think the answer for me is “it depends.” I read Scott Westerfeld because 1)I can use it for a class I’m taking and 2)I want to write a kick ass YA novel and I can learn from him and 3)I like the stories.
Is there a longing there, to be a writer, to learn from what I read? Sure. Just as there was a longing to walk through the wardrobe with Lucy and escape my dreadful childhood.
Sometimes I read to escape, sometimes to learn, and I suppose either of these could be seen as aspirational.
Susan Helene Gottfried says
You’ve just hit on my whole concept as a writer, Nathan. I write about a subculture I’d thought I’d wanted to be part of. Then I realized that to do so, I’d have to give up writing. So now I write about it. And I’d describe my target audience as being the exact same kind of person — wanting a closer look at this often mysterious and glamorous world.
sex scenes at starbucks says
My penchant for reading and writing violent, dark fantasy doesn’t really fit with my soccer-mom reality.
Fantasy worlds are all fun and games until you start looking for a clean flush toilent.
I would say most people write what they would like to read, so it follows that what a person writes or reads does reveal something about their psyche. A story is an emotional experience of sorts, so perhaps a person’s book selection reflects a craving or curiosity on an emotional level. Writing is a way of satisfying oneself, as well as sharing the experience with others who have similar desires.
i am said dumpling maker and as this was my first time trying to make southern dumplings, would love to hear more from liz about making rolled dumplings.
i also want to point out that i think there’s been a misunderstanding to the question nathan is proposing (and nathan, pls correct me if i’m off base). i think the point that was made at dinner last night was that people buy certain books to elevate their personas to the outside world/observer. for example, some people fill their shelves with books on philosophy even if they’re not necessarily hardcore philosophers because it conveys to the world that they are intellecutally aware, profound even. i don’t think it’s just about books either. people buy all sorts of things – things they can’t really afford such as nice cars, designer handbags – to appear richer than they are to others. i guess this is more about using material things to craft an identity that’s not completely ours.
Stephen Parrish says
Your fellow party-goer has a point (even if it’s a generalization). The really big Tolkien fans I’ve known have all confessed a desire to live in Middle Earth.
I majored in math, which I think qualifies me to speak for the geeks. For some reason best left for headshrinkers to discover, geeks are often attracted to language. Paul Halmos, a prominent mathematician who wrote I WANT TO BE A MATHEMATICIAN, titled his first chapter “Words.”
Your blog is hot. Miss Snark is watching her rear view mirror.
BenW in PDX says
Books are sometimes aspirational, and are definitely mood driven. Sometimes I buy a book to learn something (medieval history is my fave) or when I just want an interesting, fun story. Books provide escapism and/or can make you go “hmm…” both are good depending on what I’m after.
Dumplings first…not like I’m the expert on Southern cooking, that would be Paula Deen. I was raised up north, but have ‘kin’ from below the Mason Dixon line. Southern dumplings are basically crisco, water, eggs and flour…you roll them out and slice them into rectangles with a knife. Then drop them into the boiling chicken broth, then steam them, then add your chicken back in. The flour thickens it all up and we grew up eating it with cornbread and green beans cooked in bacon drippings. You can’t make southern dumplings from a recipe, I don’t have one, I eyeball it. You need to watch them being made and learn at the kitchen table. Or watch Paula in action.
Now, that I’ve hardened everyone’s arteries….I do get your point about people buying books to appear to the world a certain way.
Look at the Oprah phenomena…people read the books she recommends to be part of the ‘group.’
Just like that darn “Secret” book that is out there…what a bunch of horse manure. You will see that book on many a suburban coffee table over the next 6-12 months. Yikes!
If that was the point, that books lend to our appearance, like clothes, purses, shoes and cars then I get the gist of the conversation.
B.E. Sanderson says
I do believe to a certain extent our book purchases do reflect what our philosophies of life are, and thus, who we are. (Unless, of course, you own a bookstore, then all bets are off.) Of course, some people just pick up books without knowing anything about them – and that also says something about them in a way. Reading about a serial killer doesn’t mean you want to be one – just maybe you’re a person interested in the workings of the criminal mind.
And I’m with Linda (l.c.mccabe). I don’t buy books that seem to purposely disparage their readers. I think too much of myself for that. =oD
Hardly! I read for entertainment rather than watching the tube. Unless it’s a book on writing — then it’s true.
While it is true I write stuff that is fun for me to read and inspires me (in a strictly non-sexual way), I had to think about the books I guy.
After a few second tha third thoughts, yes I agree, but it’s not every book. Maybe 8 out of 10 books.
A Paperback Writer says
Geez, I hope this doesn’t apply to library books we choose as well. If so, I may have real problems because the latest book I checked out is a collection of YA horror stories called BEING DEAD. (I kid you not. This is why I burst out laughing at this post.) This is not my current goal in life; I figure I’ll get there eventually anyway, so why push it?
The last book I bought is another YA called THE GIRL IN A CAGE. I suppose we could get all Freudian or Jungian here, but, I think I just bought it because I overheard the clerk telling someone it was about Robert the Bruce’s daughter. I want to read it because I like Scottish history (and historical fiction); I have no aspirations to being caged.
I’m also halfway through a book on Druidism, and I have no intention whatsoever in becoming a Druid.
Therefore, I think we read about stuff we’re interested in, rather than what we want to be.
While I don’t think people choose books because they literally want to be whatever the subject is (eg the aforementioned druids or serial killers), I do think there is an element of aspiration involved.
I read books on many topics – novels set in realistic historical settings, nonfiction ranging from crime to rainforest ecology, fiction ranging from fantasy to horror.
I read much of this because I am – or aspire to be – a person who knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. Also, I’m not fussed on the real world and prefer not to spend too much time paying attention to it.
And to the other mentioned aspect of the question – yes, I kind of like that people who look at my bookshelf see a huge range of interests. But I’ve never bought a book with the thought that I wanted people to know I’d read it.
Heather Janes says
Well, I write mysteries and have always read mysteries, in no small part, I think, because a little bit of me wishes I could have that kind of interesting, exciting life. I’m an accountant and that’s one of the biggest fields for the FBI. I considered that, very briefly, before I realized that I’m way too chicken.
D.M. Papuga says
I agree with Jess, in that people often fill bookshelves that are visible (and really, what point is there to having a bookshelf if it isn’t accessable?) with books they may have never read. There seem to be three kinds of people:
1. People who are bibliophiles and voracious readers. If something is in their library, they have read at least part of it, and usually have some insane method of organization (I can admit I fit here).
2. People who buy books solely for the impression said books leaves on people even though they may have never cracked the covers. (Granted, some of these folks are a blend of 1 & 2, so maybe there are actually 4 categories?)
3. And, people who don’t have libraries at all and dispose of their books after having read them.
I look at bookshelves like most people look at the contents of someone’s medicine cabinet! I also do the same with film. People generally seek for ways to classify other people when they first meet (oh, you’re THAT kind of person…), and for some that might be cars, others it might be books.
Just my two cents!
Nathan, I will admit I’m a strange creature. I write what I’m told is very good dark fantasy. They don’t call me the queen of grue for nothing. I don’t read dark fantasy. I do enjoy a good horror though, but haven’t read any in years.
I’m notoriously bad about reading books by the cover. I’m usually right, but not always. I have picked badly covered books and been impressed by what was inside.
I have also picked up book with great covers and have been disappointed.
I have to admit it has been a long time since I read anything other than research for my novels. The last book I read was the last Harry Potter book.
What I write is just there. It isn’t influenced by anything I have read or seen. I work in out in my head and then I write it down. Sometimes I scribble garbage then sit down at the computer and it pretty much writes itself the way that works for the novel. Some things do come from life experiences. Others from things I’ve heard or seen. One of my characters in Kickshaw Candies has the same traits and mannerisms as those my Autistic daughter showed when she was younger. In my current work I have a character who has prophetic dreams and that is from personal experience.
In a way you are right. I avoid anything that even looks like a romance. I’m not romantic and cringe at the thought of reading one. I suppose if I were romantic I would read them.
It’s all about the cover for me!
Peter R says
In the same way that the clothes we ware say something about who we are or who we would like to be seen as, so books say something about who/what we are or who/what we would like/pretend to be.
The quickest way to learn about someone is to scan the book titles on their bookshelf – even better is to scan the titles they keep hidden from prying eyes in their bedrooms.
It’s not as overt as saying because I read about serial killers I want to be a serial killer, it’s much more subtle than that – something about the serial killer genre grabs you or intrigues you. Maybe you think you could outwit one, maybe it’s about reliving your worst nightmare, maybe it helps you appreciate the life you have, maybe it’s an acknowledgement of that dark reassess in your soul no one else can see?
The human mind is incredibly complicated, but in the same way that every story is about the human condition, so every thing we read is, on some level, about us.
S. W. Vaughn says
Well, now. This is interesting food for thought!
For the most part, I write what I like to read (dark, violent thrillers). And if I were to be completely honest with myself, if I was not so inhibited by the conventions of society — not that I don’t love my husband and son — I think my life would reflect what I read.
I’ve no qualms admitting that I would enjoy a little (or a lot) more danger and risk, and even law-breaking in my life (though I wouldn’t hurt other people, so I’d probably make a piss-poor gang member or street fighter LOL). Since I’m responsible (sigh), I just read and write about it instead.
Yeah, I’d go to the dark side. I think there is something to be said for this theory. 🙂
j h woodyatt says
p1. The Good News: your friend is very astute. Yes, the process of selecting a book to buy is aspirational. This is obvious when you think about it, right? We want to be a person who has read and assimilated the information in the books we select. (Now, be honest: how many books have you bought for that reason, and then failed to read them?)
p2. The Information: there is no useful conclusion to be drawn from this observation. You have no idea what Roxan hoped to gain by reading books about Jack The Ripper, and you can’t guess. Entertainment? Tips for how to murder prostitutes? Knowledge about the infamous conspiracy theories? Vicarious thrill of police procedure? You have no idea. It’s like that with most books.
p3. Congratulations: now, you know why tech people (I count myself as one) are dangerous when you let us get outside our narrow fields of endeavor. We’re really good at making the painfully obvious sound stupendously novel. It’s a wonder anybody wants to have dinner with us, much less literary agents.
I think the process of selection varies greatly — I choose books to read for pleasure, for research, for friends (picking books for them) and also for self-betterment. I’ll also select books based on recommendations and because I’ve met the author: in both cases they are likely to be well off my beaten track. Some of these selections might be aspirational but not necessarily: it’s one of a number of scenarios.
Having said that,I think there’s a much more direct link in terms of what people visibly leave out on view.
I’ve struggled with my bookshelves because there is a very real feeling of being judged by the books on that shelf: should I disappear those books which I didn’t like?
I’ve solved this by having the main bookshelf in the bedroom and bringing out books for specific people. 🙂
I’d like to think that the books I buy are contributing in some way to my success as a writer. In large part, the books I buy are fantasy, giving me ideas, showing me the things I like and would like to emulate. There are definitely books that I’m embarrassed to buy, but I do it anyway, and hide them on the lower shelves.
Reading is my escape. But since most of what I read falls in the fantasy category, I don’t think I’m in any danger of becoming what I read (unless I suddenly end up in an alternate universe where magic exists…)
S. Stockman says
While I am fully aware that it’s been two years since this note was first tacked to the blogosphere bulletin board, I am also aware that no one has posted in response to YOU SUCK.
It’s a good book. Not as entertaining as BLOODSUCKING FIENDS (Moore’s first vamp novel) but still an enjoyable read.
And now I’m done lurking. *takes off mask with dramatic gesture*