Deciding what to read.

Every now and again, when something new comes along, it is natural to ask how it will affect what already exists, and whether any subsequent change will be for the good. It applies to practically anything: scientific discovery, commercial innovation, political edict, cultural transformation and much more. For example, what did television do to radio, and how did theatre cope with the new picture houses? Of course, we know the answer to these particular questions, but it is not difficult to imagine the predictions of disaster for radio and theatre when the upstarts began to challenge the old-timers for our attention.

Similarly, we can imagine the same fears for the written word each time something new and ostensibly more interesting came along: photography, radio, film, television, video games, computers, web applications and now it seems social media. Yet with each innovation in the entertainment world, the written word survives. Through a mixture of stubbornness, adaptation and, in some cases, enduring superiority, it remains central to our lives. In many ways it is as strong as ever, if altered somewhat. Books are rarely published without e-book versions, and one sees in bookshops an increasing number of special-edition hardbacks, designed for the gift-buyer and collector alike; just about all newspapers and periodicals have digital editions; and letters are still with us, sort of, although increasingly in the form of emails and instant messages. Writing continues; it has simply adapted to changing times.

Perhaps the written word is always changing in some small way. Take the most recent quarterly release of the Oxford English Dictionary Online; it records 1,700 new and revised entries. The persistence of the written word, along with the persistence of all those older forms of entertainment mentioned above, shows that evolution is just as likely as substitution. And because books and magazines adapt rather than die, we are faced with an ever-growing selection of publications from which to choose. As we get older and hopefully wiser, we come to realise that the more we read the more there is for us to read. Ergo, a method for choosing one item over another is required.

How, then, do we decide what to read? Or is the decision not really ours as we think it is? For a while I put my trust in the Divine. I would stand in my room under the cupboard stuffed with Oxfam bargains, open the door, gaze upwards with a look of devotional glee and see what fell on my head. Not a very sophisticated method, I admit, but it did come with several advantages: No more worrying I was reading the wrong things; no more worrying I wasn’t reading the right things; and no more worrying about how unread and ignorant I was.

But then came the discovery of two things: a limitless supply of free classics on the Project Gutenberg website, and an even-more-limitless supply of free stuff on the internet. A cheap, immediate and practically endless source of reading material had arrived, which made the Divine and the Oxfam cupboard suddenly seem a rather inadequate way of choosing what to read. A new form of discrimination was required, and failure to come up with one would lead to being overwhelmed by this new and voluminous cascade of electronic words.

Traditionally speaking, and for the non-electronic reader, there are two ways to discriminate between one piece of writing and another. The first comes from paying for it, which forces the reader to prioritise; the second in going to the library. True, the free and numerous nature of library books threatens to overwhelm the reader nearly as much as the internet; but the mind is concentrated by the very act of travelling to the library, defeating its encrypted shelving system, using the shiny, exclusive membership card which makes you feel a part of the club, and then returning the book under threat of a fine.

Literature, however, will continue in both electronic and paper form – there is no doubt of that. But there is also no doubt, until the new Dark Ages begin, of course, that the supply of reading material will continue to expand with the universe. Discrimination therefore, or choosing between one piece of writing and another, is going to become more and more important to the discerning reader. And it begs the question: Why exactly do we read what we read, and what determines our reading habits?

We read for all sorts of reasons: to satisfy academic inquiry; to imagine excitement and adventure; to sate anger; to alleviate boredom; or to find our way about the streets of the metropolis. And comprehensive deconstruction for the purpose of answering the question is probably impossible; the reasons are too numerous and too unique to each reader.

But we can try. Is there not a certain logic that says our choice of reading material represents, in part, a desire to balance something in our mood? For instance, if we are feeling downhearted by the realisation our lives are dull and predictable, we might pick up a fantasy novel or an adventure; or perhaps, if we are feeling lonely, we might go for a spirit-warming romance or some Darcy-inspired piece of chic-lit.

But there is more to it than that, surely? How many times have you read and finished a book just because you were given it and would have felt guilty if you didn’t? And are we to believe that the recent spike in sales for the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey is down to legions of women looking to escape a caricature of 1950s-style repression? Hardly. If anything, western culture has been steadily normalising the complete opposite. Continuing the logic would suggest that something called One Shade of White should be topping the bestseller lists right now. But I don’t think it is.

Books sell, in the end, because of marketing as much as anything else – that’s marketing in its broadest sense: the carefully orchestrated campaigns of the large publishing houses; the hype of a Hollywood blockbuster (Preferably a series with teen-vampires, or, for that matter, a series with teen-anything.); and the viral capacities of the Internet. But the luckiest marketing break is, perhaps, nothing more than the fact of something being the thing. Friends or celebrities saying, ‘You simply have to read this, it’s just the best,’ even if it reads like one of the earlier monkey-Shakespeare experiments.

Indeed, it would be a surprise if the Gideons and Samanthas of the marketing world never wondered how they might present their latest book as ‘the thing simply everyone’s reading,’ with subtext: ‘and you should read it, too, or you’ll be missing out on the literary event of the year.’ Or something along that vein.

Perhaps on occasions this works, I don’t really know. But my suspicion is that finding a hit novel is a lot about luck – for the publishers, that is. They’re constantly on the lookout for something they think will go well, but they don’t really know what that is. They know what they like, they think they know what the public might like, and they work hard at getting the book out there; but beyond that it’s up to the Gods and the whim of the reading masses.

All things considered, perhaps it’s better not to think too hard about what it is we are reading. Perhaps the cupboard wasn’t such a bad idea after all. If we are going to be overwhelmed by volume, powerless before our fluctuating moods and cajoled by the invisible (and sometimes not so invisible) hand of marketing, why not simply open the door and see what falls on our heads. The only modification that might improve this method is, perhaps, for it to be made into an app. There would be a button, obviously, and on pressing it we could have a random but appropriate book delivered to us in whatever form we preferred. There, problem solved.


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