The literary world, and I speak here primarily of its online incarnation, does some things really well. We chew on abstract issues like why literature matters, what counts as art, and how to navigate the writing life. What we don’t do as well is consider “average” or “real” readers, the people who subsidize most of the book production in the country. This wouldn’t be a big deal if we simply left them alone. (Not that I’m advocating this strategy.) But these people come up all the time, if only by proxy: we chuckle at Dan Brown’s unit sales or snipe at HarperCollins’s “It” imprint, all without necessarily engaging with the readers behind these trends.
So, late on a late December Friday, I decided to try something different: I headed to a mall-bound Borders and asked 37 customers about their relationship to books. I realize my approach has its own problems (sample size, anyone?), but it offers something others can’t—readers speaking in their own voices.
Don’t be fooled by the Seattle’s Best Coffee and all those overstuffed chairs: Borders is not a great place to talk books, mostly because, in my experience, doing so requires weeks of answering machines and unrequited emails—all to secure the Borders Group’s tepid “yes” and a two-hour time limit.
At least I didn’t have much territory to canvass. In the last year, especially, Borders has flailed about for a business model—like Barnes & Noble, it’s now looking to lose its mall locations—and one new initiative has been Borders Ink, a teen-themed sub-store. If the Borders I visited were laid out like the back of a paperback book, the bar code would be checkout area; the author photo would be the coffee shop; and the three blurbs would be music, movies, and Borders Ink and its mass of Twilight merchandise. (Does any celebrity look more like his plastic figurines than Robert Pattinson?) The paperback’s plot summary—maybe 30 percent of the space—would be the tables and shelves of books.
My first interview ended up being my favorite. Mary Anne, an older woman with red clogs and a kind face, tells me that “reading is a real passion of mine.” Her favorite author is Diana Gabaldon, and Mary Anne likes to let the TV hum in the background as she reads (or rereads) 10 to 12 books of historical fiction per week. “Books put me right in the moment,” she says. “The story, the characters, the period stuff.” (Dan Brown elicits an “eh”—he’s “outlandishly far-fetched,” in her nice phrase.)
I start every interview by asking people what they read, coming across all the names the bestseller lists would suggest: Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Mitch Albom, Steve Berry and James Rollins, Stephen King (“The cheeseburger of American lit,” as one Borders employee puts it), Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, and plenty more I hadn’t heard of. (I confess to writing Diane Gabeldern? in my notes.) Bob, an older man in a grubby New York Giants hat, gives the same one-word answer to “What do you read?” and “Why do you read?”: “mystery.” Another guy admits he reads “whatever’s in the airport.”
Most people, though, classify their reading tastes as “eclectic.” Kelly, a young English major, reads Shakespeare and Jane Austen for “inspiration” and “this stuff” (she gestures at the Borders Ink sign) for “relaxation.” But where Kelly seems genuinely eclectic, others invoke the descriptor simply because they aren’t in the habit of talking about books. “I’ll read anything” is the easiest answer to questions you don’t regularly think about, and, when pressed for specifics, most of the people I talked to either reaffirmed their eclecticism or settled on a sub-category—yes, romance, that’s it. All of them lacked a ready vocabulary for stuff like style, technique, or genre.
People were more articulate on why they read, which is also, of course, a genre-inflected question. Beth, a mom loading up on chapter books, reads to learn something. “I didn’t pay too much attention in school,” she says, “so I like to read about our nation’s history.” Ted, who sticks to sports, demands books on current events—ideally someone “with a checkered past.” Tom relied on Ian Fleming to survive his New York City commute; he’s got a different job, now, and “it’s been harder to find the time.”
Renee, a bubbly twentysomething, says she reads “all kinds of stuff”—David Sedaris is a favorite—but also cops to a Twilight addiction. Just don’t ask her about the movies: “The books are so much more horrifying. With movies, you can only feel by seeing. With a book, your imagination does the work.”
This is an idea I hear again and again—the idea that, more than any other medium, books let you “put your own spin on things” and “escape from the real world,” in the words of Stephanie, a college student. Leah and Tammy, two moms in the Nicholas Sparks section who don’t appear to know each other but immediately begin swapping stories about reading after their kids fall asleep, agree that books offer a unique, imaginative escape. Cheryl, a middle-aged woman, enjoys novels steeped in “criminology and anthropology.” Books provide her with “details and depth that the TV shows just can’t match.”
Cheryl also stresses that she tries to remain faithful to her favorite authors. “I just love the way she writes,” she says of Patricia Cromwell*. Most of my conversations were similarly author-centric. (At least as it pertained to novelists; not a single person named a journalist or historian.) When I asked people if they attend author readings, though, I got the weirdest stares. I think you could make a pretty solid argument that these readers have a healthier connection to their authors (and to their art) than do more literary audiences.
But this brings up another question: How else do the people I talked to interact with the book world? Renee subscribes to Entertainment Weekly and reads its page of book reviews. Beth, a fan of “mysteries and romances,” reads the New York Times Book Review “religiously.” And… that’s it. Mary Anne watches the bookish segments on CBS’s Sunday Morning, but she distrusts professional critics because “they don’t look at the story, which matters to me. Besides, they’re too worried about trends.”
No one else seeks out any more extensive book coverage, online or off. Those who do surf the web stick to authors’ official sites or to those of Borders or Barnes & Noble. Only one woman mentions Amazon; a couple of people bring up used-book stores or warehouse club chains. When I ask how they learn about new books or authors, people point to browsing book stores and seeking out “if you like X, you’ll really like Y” recommendations from the staff. (I should add that the Borders staff I talked to, while universally helpful and kind, were not exactly the literary equivalent to the cast of High Fidelity.) The biggest driver of book sales seems to be word-of-mouth. Stephanie is currently reading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked because her sister gave it to her. And let’s give the last word to Mary Anne: “I always buy books for everyone for Christmas—especially for my six grandchildren.”
On one of the sinks in the Borders’ bathroom, I found someone’s forgotten Christmas list, printed out and water-stained:
The list went on for a full page. It even included two books: Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy and Charles Bukowski’s Dangling in the Tournefortia. Point is, the people I talked to might not live for books, but they still live with and through them.
*Update: Paul Constant, the estimable Books Editor at The Stranger, emailed to let me know that Cheryl was almost certainly speaking of Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling crime writer, and not Patricia Cromwell, whom I appear to have invented. Sigh. I hope it’s clear that my heart was always in the right place.
[Image credit: Kevin Dooley]