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5 Bookish Conversations We Want to Have

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

Rebecca and I did a bit of venting a while ago about some literary topics that we are tired of discussing. One reason to try to move on from having these same conversations again and again is so that we can make more room in our lives for more interesting questions.

So here are five conversations we are dying to hear more about. I’ll go first:

5. How do we decide what to read?

JO: This one is equal parts voyeurism and selfishness. First, I am just plain curious to understand how folks go about pulling the trigger on a book. It seems to be some mysterious combination of word-of-mouth, mood, timing, marketing, availability, recommendations and…..other stuff.

Second, my own book selection feels ungovernable and unknowable even to me. I have no idea why I try this book and not that book, especially when it comes to new-to-me authors.

RJS: I’m curious about this too. There are so many factors at play, and any one of them alone would be complicated enough. I think I have a pretty good handle on how I decide what to read–looking at my last dozen selections, I could tell you how and why I picked it–but it’s totally idiosyncratic. I suspect there are as many methods for selecting a new book as there are readers.

We’ve seen some surveys that attempt to answer this question, but it seems unquantifiable. Readers can tick boxes to indicate the factors that affect their book selection, but it’s the weight of those factors, and how they interact with each other, that are most interesting. And I don’t know if, or how, you measure that.

4. How should I spend my book dollars?

JO: There is a lot of public moralizing about shopping at independent bookstores and not at Amazon. The general theory is that independent bookstores are better for books and reading than Amazon is, though the dots aren’t always connected. I know indie booksellers are great advocates for books; we have several writing for us here at Book Riot, and they are truly fantastic folks.

But here’s the thing: most people don’t have an unlimited book budget and your book-buying dollar goes further if you buy online/discount/digital. That is, you can get more titles for the same money. The same number of book dollars go into the ecosystem. Is this better or worse for what we want from publishing? If my $1000 a year in books goes to 100 rather than 50 authors/publishers, does that make any difference at all? It seems to me a higher percentage of my book dollars goes to authors/publishers, even if the number per purchase is lower. Or, I could be totally wildly off-base here. That’s why I want the conversation.

My goals for my book dollars are these: to get the most titles (legally) for my money AND to spend money in a way that makes sure there are a diverse array of titles available for me and others. Those two might be in tension with each other, but I feel like I don’t have the information I need to make a decision I am comfortable with.

Does that make sense?

RJS: It makes total sense, and I wish I knew more about it, too. I want the same things out of my book dollars–in the way of maximizing title availability and diversity–and I also want to keep my favorite book recommenders in business. So, yes–money to authors and publishers, but also to bookstores. I’m not a 100% digital reader yet, and I want to be able to walk into the shops I love and be handsold by booksellers who are able to make a living doing what they do so well. But damn, I wish I knew how exactly to strike the balance.

3. What do we want from reading?

RJS: (Maybe this should be the final entry?) Ask me why I read, and I’ll tell you something about reading to learn, to experience lives and worlds I’ll never know otherwise, to be forced outside my ways of thinking, and to escape. And all of those things would be true. But I feel like they don’t *really* get to the heart of why we read and what we’re looking for when we pick up a book, of what makes reading different from engaging with other forms of media.

Also, I think there’s a difference between wanting to read and needing to read. At least, that’s how I experience it. I want to read all the time. But there are times when I need to read, when a book is the only thing that is going to give me whatever it is I’m looking for emotionally in that moment. I don’t even know that I can explain it any better than that–there’s just this “I need a book NOW” feeling.

JO: Yea, you can tell how little we have a consensus about why reading is good for us when we pass around CAT scans of people’s brains while they are reading Jane Austen or psychology studies about empathizing with characters. We both feel reading to be important, but are also pretty damn unsure exactly why that is.

My suspicion is that reading (and language and stories and communication) lies at the nexus of so many of our civilized human interests that it eludes articulation. This actually leads into my next question.

2. Can reading be bad for you?

JO: I don’t know of anything in the universe that is an unalloyed “good,” so there HAVE to be downsides to reading. We, the cheerleaders of reading, fall into the “just so long as they’re reading” position sometimes, mostly I think because we value the habit over any particular text. But surely there are some reading habits that are undesirable and produce results that we’d call harmful. Like, you can’t just read Mein Kampf over and over again, right? And probably shouldn’t read only male authors or only novels about crime? Maybe?

I’m sorta uncomfortable even broaching the idea, though that’s usually a sign of a conversation worth having.

RJS: With you on this, from a couple different angles. There’s the “too much of a good thing” piece, which can come into play any time we consistently choose one activity over all others and over social interaction. I don’t care what you’re reading, if you never get out and encounter other human beings (no matter how annoying they are trying to order that latte), it’s not gonna end well.

Then there’s the question you’re raising about whether reading certain things can be bad for us. And my gut says that yes, it can. When we read, we allow authors and their ideas to walk around in our heads. Ideally, we look at those ideas from a bunch of perspectives and think critically about them before we decide if we’re going to let them take up residence. But I know I’ve been changed by books without realizing it until later, so the key would be balance, maybe? Though I feel weird about getting proscriptive and listing specific things that are bad for us to read. So, like, go ahead and read Mein Kampf, but read a whole lot of other stuff too, and try to ask questions of all of it. Is it naive to want that from readers?

1. What can we do to ensure the future of reading?

JO: This is the big one for me. I can recommend books all day long, but is that the most we can do to widen the circle of reading? Should I be volunteering at the library or reading to seniors or donating money to the local library? Maybe advocating for better teacher pay or trying to get elected my local schoolboard? It’s just such a vast, complicated, and nebular issue that my response is usually just to go read something.

RJS: I’m torn about this question. Stories and storytelling have been such an enduring part of human history and culture (as you mentioned earlier), that part of me says we don’t really need to worry about this, that we’re always going to find a way to tell stories and to consume them. Another part of me says that if you want to compete with the other forms of media that are vying for people’s attention, you have to make reading cool and relevant, though of course there are as many definitions of cool and relevant as there are people out there. Maybe you just lead by example, making reading a priority in your life and talking about it when you can.

But can you make someone else love reading? I don’t know. As romantic as the notion is that every non-reader is just a reader who hasn’t met the right book, I have a hard time buying it.

JO: Part of me buys the argument that stories are going to be around, but it’s also a logical fallacy (gambler’s fallacy) to say that something will continue to be around because it has been around. Maybe what I want to advocate for is a certain attitude towards words and language. Anyway, that’s why it’s the number one conversation about books that I’d love to have.


Alright, that’s our list. Other questions you’d like to see people talk about more often? Or thoughts on what we’ve asked here? Let us know in the comments.