I recently read a quotation by Haruki Murakami. “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Nothing particularly unique about the thought, but it is interesting, and led me to a tangential line of reasoning.
The books that everyone else is reading. That bit seems particularly relevant to the current book market. And it resonates with me in particular, because whenever multiple people tell me that I just must read a popular book, I viscerally cringe. Why? Perhaps I’m a little snake-bit at this point, having delved into such popular volumes, only to find most of them at best mediocre. Perhaps I assume that popular equates somewhat with lowest common denominator, a certain group-think when it comes to perceiving both books and the greater world. Whatever the reason, the books that everyone else reads should often be avoided.
The issues at play here are two-fold. A portion of readers only want to read what is popular. What other people know and discuss. For them saying that they’ve read a certain book, and receiving only blanks stares of non-recognition in return, is both uncomfortable and lacks the neurotransmitter rush of positive reinforcement. If they can’t place themselves and their reading into some social context, then what is the point?** Certain books then get spun up into a popular pressure vortex. These are the books to read, these and no others. (And people only have so much time to read, so there is little opportunity to read beyond the expected, or even to find other options.) The books that are deemed popular are the ones where consumer money is spent, so the publishing world focuses its selections on meeting this demand.
But the problem doesn’t really start with the consumers, or even with the publishers. It starts with the book reviewers. The publishers, yes, but mostly the reviewers. Why? Reviewers, the ostensibly real, respected kind, tend to all review the same narrow selection of books. Countless times I’ve found, in a given month, the same books being reviewed in, for instance, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, etc. There is no broad reading of all new books being published. There is no search for the best and brightest. These people aren’t book reviewers. They are simply shilling for the publishers, promoting those few books that the publishers want promoted, forcing them into becoming those popular, must-read volumes. Cynical, perhaps. But really, what else could account for nearly all published books being ignored? What else could account for truly excellent books having no chance against the promotional juggernaut? What else could account for the reviewed books coincidentally having the largest publicity budgets, already established prior to publication and public reaction? It’s rather QED, like it or not.
Imagine. Just imagine. If book reviewers actually read broadly of all published books, and wrote real reviews of the best of the lot, imagine how much more vastly and beautifully textured the reading landscape would be. People in general don’t have the time to peruse hundreds of possibilities every month. That should be the job of the reviewers, and they are failing miserably.
This discussion has wandered far from the quotation, but it circles back round to this. If everyone reads the same few books, foisted upon them by the publishers and reviewers, then the scope of perception is severely curtailed. And isn’t that representative of current society? It seems that the more freedom we have, the more information to which we have access, the greater and broader the scope of possibilities (of all sorts), the more narrow and confined and stunted our minds and imaginations become. By choice, by not seizing the endless opportunities that exist all around us.
** And perhaps for that same greater context, people tend to want to read what is already familiar. This accounts for some truly horrendous book series, whose latest installments, no matter how wretched, land immediately on the bestseller lists.