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Why We Read What We Read: A Delightfully Opinionated Journey through Contemporary Bestsellers written by John Heath


Why We Read What We Read: A Delightfully Opinionated Journey through Contemporary Bestsellers written by John Heath


What do weight loss, evil emperors and tales of redemption have in common?

We readers have many dirty little secrets-and our bestselling books are spilling them all. We can't resist conspiratorial crooks or the number 7. We have bought millions of books about cheese. And over a million of us read more than 50 nearly identical books every single year.

In Why We Read What We Read, Lisa Adams and John Heath take an insightful and often hilarious tour through nearly 200 bestselling books, ferreting out their persistent themes and determining what those say about what we believe and how we relate to one another.

Some of our favorite (and revealing) topics include:

—Repeating the Obvious:
Diet, Wealth, and Inspiration

—Black and White and Read All Over:
Good and Evil in Bestselling Adventure Novels and Political Nonfiction

—Soul Train:
Religion and Spirituality

—Hopefully Ever After:
Love, Romance and Relationships

—Reading for Redemption:
Trials and Triumphs in Literary Fiction and Nonfiction

—Controversy and Conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code

Explore the nature of what and how we read-and what it means for our psyches, our society and our future.


What do weight loss, evil emperors and tales of redemption have in common?

Publishers Weekly

What does an analysis of PW's and USA Today's bestsellers lists tell us about the values, desires and fears of the American reading public? "[R]eaders are increasingly attracted to simple, univocal reinforcements of hunches rather than complex... answers," say the authors. Heath (coauthor, Who Killed Homer?) and first-time author Adams go on to analyze book after book to show its superficiality and failure to challenge readers' assumptions; they pick in particular on Dan Brown. The low-carb craze was about simplistic answers to psychological and physiological issues. J.K. Rowling and John Grisham reduce the world to good vs. evil, eliminating the need to understand conflicting points of view; Laura Schlessinger's and John Gray's success reveal an American public longing for traditional male-female roles. Disaster books, even literary titles like Into Thin Air, demonstrate an American appetite for redemptive stories of survival in the face of tragedy, and the red-hot Da Vinci Codescored by manipulating our lust for controversy and conspiracy and our need to feel (without actually being) educated. This effort is larded with data that will be obvious to publishing professionals and of little interest to general readers. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information


"Em-pa-thy." Carefully, Maizy pronounced each syllable. "I want to feel what she feels-completely, utterly, totally. What I mean is, I want to love her."

I was dumbfounded. My jaw fell and my lips parted. "But you do love her."

"Not really," she said. "Not until I feel her pain like I feel my own." — Icy Sparks

We keep yammering on about empathy, particularly the lack of it in many of the bestselling books from the recent past. Well, there's a big group out there that doesn't need the lecture.

Today's readers of "literary" fiction and nonfiction-a label of somewhat nebulous meaning that implies non-formulaic, higher-quality books on any topic-are all over empathy. They seem to have taken Azar Nafisi to heart when she says, "A novel...is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize" (111). Nafisi's focus is novels, but much of the bestselling nonfiction from this time period, especially of the creative and journalistic sort, also provides that "sensual experience" if readers will only take a gulp and dive in.

Taking a glance at the top literary books from the past sixteen years-of which we read around 50-it's clear that readers are eagerly donning their bathing-caps and plunging into all sorts of new worlds. But empathy, even here, takes its own revealing course. We'll take a peek at yet another facet of America's soul as we examine the bestsellers of literary fiction and nonfiction in this chapter.

But before we begin, we have to make a pit stop at Oprah's Book Club.

Help Me, Oprah!

Between 1996 and 2002, Oprah Winfrey picked 43 different works of literary fiction (and five works of nonfiction) for her televised Book Club. After reading each selection, participants were to tune in for the discussion on the Oprah Winfrey show, which generally included Oprah, the author, and a handful of lucky readers who had found the book especially meaningful and had sent in letters describing why.

Every single one of these books became a bestseller. Each of Oprah's 1996-1999 selections sold an average of 1.4 million copies; not a week went by during the entire six-year period without at least one of Oprah's books on the bestseller lists. In some years, the only debut novelists to make it into the top 30 on an annual list were those chosen by Oprah. So though we really do not want or need to examine the inner workings of Oprah's Book Club, we can't ignore her remarkable influence on recent bestselling literary fiction. (We will, however, ignore most of her post-2002 picks, since at that time Oprah decided to reinvigorate the classics, highlighting such authors as John Steinbeck, William Faulker, and Elie Wiesel.)

It's funny the things you hear about Oprah books. "They're all the same," various critics claim, though each seems to mean something slightly different. Some say they're all about African-Americans, or all about women, or all about feeeeelings. Listening to the rumors-or even the published criticisms by some professional (and comparatively impotent) reviewers-you get the idea that every one of her books is about black women weeping over retarded babies.

It's true that Oprah intentionally looked for books written by African-Americans, but even at that only about one-quarter of the authors were minorities. It's also true that three-quarters of the selected authors were women (and almost all the novels penned by men have a central female character or narrator). And it's true that she picked at least one book about a retarded baby. But none of those claims is exactly on the mark when you take a look at Oprah's whole canon-or even her biggest hits, which are the ones that we read. (While every one of her choices has been a bestseller, we focused on the most popular of these-the ones on the annual lists.) There are commonalities, important ones, but they are both grander and more revealing than concerns of race or gender. And, more significantly, they apply equally well to most of the bestselling literary works of this period that Oprah didn't choose. Ultimately, literary readers both inside and outside Oprah's domain are choosing works with startling similarities.

We also found no qualitative difference between Oprah books and the other literary titles that hit the top of the charts. Some people have called Oprah the "Midas of the mid-list" and her books "middlebrow," usually with the implication that they aren't quite real literature. We really don't want to get involved in this one. In fact, most of the titles had positive reviews in The New York Times Book Review before Oprah picked them. And, having read them, we know it's untrue, and unfair, to declare sweepingly that all Oprah books possess the same quality and potential for intellectual consideration. They don't.

Finally, we think the middlebrow/highbrow debate to be largely irrelevant: While we admire any quest for high standards, and hope that the reading public at large will be literate enough to have that kind of nitpicky discussion someday, we doubt that the Oprah-snubbers have a clue what the rest of America is reading. If they did, they just might get down on their knees and kiss Oprah's feet for getting books with some depth, penned by talented writers, on the list at all.

And yes, maybe we're biased; when you've read Danielle Steel, Michael Savage, and Betty Eadie's near-death ramblings in close succession, even a book about retarded babies starts to look like a darn fine read. Still, battle-weary or not, we contend that getting more people to read more complex books-and, by extension, accept the complexity of life and tolerate more viewpoints-is truly important. Oprah should be praised for these efforts! And though we personally expect more from books than she and her club members (and many other readers) seem to have demanded, we don't want to underestimate Oprah's influence on what Americans have read-and even more importantly, how they have read.

With that tease, let's get to the books. In our analysis of literary fiction we flit back and forth between Oprah picks and those bestsellers not selected for her book club. When it matters, we've tried to make it clear which are which, but, as we've said, there is really no point in maintaining this false dichotomy and most of the time we simply ignore it. Call it compassion fatigue.

I. Don't Want to Be a Mongolian Idiot

Our first stop is the literature that focuses on "difference," especially in the form of handicaps and diseases-what they call "affliction fiction." Come one, come all, see the dwarfs and freaks, the chubby and the "special" on parade! Many of these are Oprah's doing. She started in 1997 with Ursula Hegi's Stones from the River, which became the #6 Trade Paperback for the year. So begins this tale of a German Zwerg (dwarf): "As a child Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside others. That was before she understood the power of being different. The agony of being different" (9).

That pretty much sums it up. These books cultivate empathy by treating readers to the horrible loneliness of the misunderstood, misshapen, and rejected. Another 1997 Oprah selection was Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone (#3 Trade Paperback), the life story of a young woman struggling with weight and self-esteem (which some critics have seen as the ultimate Oprah book in that it seems to parallel her own life story). Then came Jewel in 1999 (#12 Trade Paperback), Bret Lott's novel about a mother of six who learns that her youngest child is, as the doctor so compassionately puts it, a "Mongolian Idiot"-that is, physically and mentally retarded. 2001 brought Icy Sparks to Oprah's list, Gwyn Hyman Rubio's book about a girl with Tourette's syndrome (#5 Trade Paperback).

We were hoping for killer albinos, but it looks like only Dan Brown is into that scene.

With the exception of Jewel, which focuses on the difficulty of raising a retarded child rather than the child's experience, these books are all thematically similar, and the characters' outcastiness tends to blend together. Yes, it's tough being a misfit. (Don't we know it! How come there aren't any Oprah books about nerds?) To be fair, though, the books have plenty of thought-provoking moments. After Trudi stops wailing about her dwarfdom, for example, Stones from the River becomes a fascinating portrait of Germany during the Hitler years. And who in rural Kentucky in 1956 would know what to make of Tourette's syndrome? No one in Icy Sparks. Not understanding she has a disorder, Icy explains her situation thus: "I reckon I got a touch of pokeweed inside me, the poison parts....This poison builds up, get stronger and stronger, until it has to get out. If it don't, it'll eat me up....So I have to let this poison out. A jerk here. A croak there. A cuss word. A nasty thought" (122). Less compelling are Icy's seemingly endless encounters with other misfits-fat people, "sissies," kids with cerebral palsy-that teach her not to fear and judge, and eventually, to accept herself. It all starts to look a bit too much like the fraternity reject-room in Animal House.

There's nothing wrong with self-love and respect for difference and all that, of course, but it just gets a little redundant, and strikes us as a little too...simple? Obvious? Manipulative? How easy it is to empathize with a good person who's been dealt a nasty fate. Reading any one of these books would make a fine literary jaunt, but we wouldn't recommend a back-to-back affliction fest. It's just all too similar.

You can try to blame Oprah for foisting so much of this on us, but ultimately it's the readers who want it. The majority of Oprah's books don't have these themes, but the ones that do all have been the top-sellers. Moreover, non-Oprah books on similar topics have also been extremely popular, three of them in the past few years: Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper, about a teenage girl's lifetime fight against leukemia (#10 Trade Paperback in 2005); Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, told from the perspective of a 15-year-old autistic boy (#10 Trade Paperback in 2004, #7 in 2005); and Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, the captivating if slow-starting story of a hermaphrodite and his painful adolescent transition from girl to man (talk about your differences!). Even the plot of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, #X in 2006, hinges on the existence of a baby with Down's syndrome, though the book's themes lie elsewhere.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, however, is quite different from many of the other books of this type, because it attempts to demonstrate the thought processes of the autistic rather than catalogue the sadness of those with disabilities. We don't know if it's accurate, but we don't really care: it's very interesting, very funny, and refreshingly free of self-pity. If we like Christopher, it's because of his unflagging, charming logic and unwitting sense of humor; if we feel for him, it's because he ends up facing some immense challenges for a person of his abilities. This is a book that really plunges the reader into a different world, a world of mental and social limitations that is at once foreign and fascinating. It succeeds without platitudes, without goopy reminders that we may seem different, but we're really all the same. In fact, Christopher isn't the same as regular folk-he can't tell lies, interpret facial expressions, or touch anything yellow without having a meltdown. Curious Incident is noteworthy because it offers the full, fleshed-out perspective of someone truly different-a claim that few bestsellers in any genre can make.

II. Sucks to Be You

But we all know that being different isn't the only thing that can bring a person down. There's a lot that can go wrong in life, and we readers want to know all the details of every marrow-melting scenario.

Your son might get kidnapped. Your father might sign you up to be an African missionary. Your boyfriend might abandon you, pregnant, in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Your grandfather could head up a nutty fundamentalist religion. Your ex could be a worthless drunk whose habit condemns you to constant public humiliation and snickering. Your expedition might reach the summit of Mt. Everest just as a huge storm hits. Your husband could have another wife and family across the Atlantic.

Extreme scenarios such as those mentioned above are the norm in literary fiction and nonfiction alike. They're the equivalent of the pulse-pumping "good and evil" titles, in which every move has worldwide significance. These are the high-octane librettos of the heart.

Weird Coincidences

Ever since we read The Celestine Prophecy, we see coincidences everywhere. Here are some of our favorites from the books in this chapter.

- Both Trudi Montag and Icy Sparks befriend an effeminate blond boy and sing like "an angel"
- Both The Deep End of the Ocean and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time discuss a famous probability puzzle called the Monty Hall Problem
- Both Nathan in The Poisonwood Bible and Grandpa Herman in The Rapture of Canaan go crazy for God after going to war
- Both Dinah in The Red Tent and Sybil in Midwives get burned for attempting to free live newborns from dead mothers with emergency C-sections

Though occasionally tottering on the precipice of the melodramatic, many of these titles are intriguing and well-written, and because their topics are so different, so are their themes. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, for example, explores the consequences of Christian hubris, each member of a missionary family finding transformation or destruction in the land they hoped to shape to their own devices (#3 Trade Paperback in 2000). Joyce Carol Oates' We Were the Mulvaneys, on the other hand, introduces the perfect American family and chronicles its crumbling into alcoholism and exile (#2 Trade Paperback in 2001). And The Deep End of the Ocean details the unraveling of a not-so-perfect American family after the kidnapping of its three-year-old (#11 for Hardcover Fiction in 1996).

The drama, however, is different from that of adventure/thriller fiction. No matter how uncommon these fictional plots might be, they are still more likely to happen to the average reader than a whirlwind crime-fighting tour. The sheer possibility of such events, such suffering, invites morbid curiosity-how would someone handle that? What would it feel like?

But with the curiosity comes a certain comfort. We readers seem to have a grim fascination with misfortunes-even invented ones-as long as they fall in other people's laps. Both My Sister's Keeper and The Deep End of the Ocean describe how people flock to assist the afflicted out of "secret joy" that they themselves were spared (Sister's Keeper, 81). Perhaps we also harbor the idea that heaving ourselves along on another's catastrophe will free us from our own, hoping that "if I feel this entire, if I let this wound me, my own will be spared. I will be absolved, by lent and prior pain, from destruction in the first person" (Deep End, 349).

As if! But even as we take from these books the comfort of not having lived these calamities, we can also admire the characters that make it through them-and sometimes even come out better in the end. This inspirational element is particularly apparent in the "hard times" literature-stories that transport us to other times or other places, setting us in the shadows of an escaping soldier or lacing us into a farmer's ever-laboring boots.

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