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Why Do They Read?

Why do people read?

It’s more than just the bookend to a my previous question, “Why do we write?” Someone who is going to call himself or herself a writer will ultimately need readers to make that appellation stick; even Emily Dickinson found an audience posthumously. The readers are the customers, the people that pay in the money that make the whole prospect of a writing biz possible. What do our customers want?

Narrowing the question to fiction gives us a workable question I think we can answer. People read fiction to be entertained first and foremost. They choose the interface of a book, rather than a DVD movie, for many reasons. Perhaps they are stealing a few moments here and there on the train. It may mark break time. They can stretch out the experience as long as they want or need to. Whatever the reasons, they have the habit of using an antique interface and stay with it. Tradition makes for a good built-in market in any industry.

After entertainment and familiarity with the interface, the reasons why people read start to get a bit murky. In a greater social context, literature gives us myths and frameworks for understanding the world around us. The stories illuminate the point of contention in a way that messy reality often obscures, allowing a writer to concentrate on what is enduring and poignant. But is this greater social good something that the customer is really looking for, as an individual, or just something that marks the difference between regular fiction and literature?

I think our dear readers want at least some feeling of greater relevance in what they read. Not every book produces great mythological figures like Gordon Gekko, who I think is the last such example to really catch on. But if a book can embody in one figure just a few of the qualities that give the reader the context necessary to understand their world a little better, it makes for a good read. It’s not just entertainment, it’s about informing; informing the intuitive side of our hunter-gather instincts is often even more useful than anything “true”.

Sci-Fi and Fantasy may be the best examples of entertainment through a kind of mythological framework, even if narrowly constructed. To me, the best of these genres is all about taking one or two things and twisting them in a way that makes a point about something utterly silly that we do in our world. You want to keep the suspension of disbelief at a minimum, so just a few items will do it. When the reader is done, they look at the life they lead and the world around them a little differently. Such a novel has tremendous staying power.

The readers want an awful lot from writers. They want writers to be able to understand the world around all of us far better than any of the nice hairdos on the nooze appear to, and they want the writer to be able to boil that down into something they can make sense of themselves. And it has to be entertaining, a thrill on every page. Is that too much to ask? Well, no, changing times demand that the people caught up in the change have at least some kind of compass to tell them where they are going.

When we all talk about “The Industry”, the great bookselling engine that runs on momentum as much as anything, we are really talking about the readers. They are the ones who feed money into the Industry and make it desirable to starving writers. No discussion about books or the future of books makes any sense unless it contains at least some reference to why people read. However, any such analysis is extremely rare as far as I can tell. This little essay is the only attempt I’ve ever seen.

Perhaps I asked the question wrong in the first place. Publishers, please take note: Why do people send you money in the first place? What value do any of us have in people’s lives and the greater social good many of us think we serve? There’s not a single industry anywhere that doesn’t ultimately serve a customer of some kind. Who are yours?

3 thoughts on “Why Do They Read?

  1. Hi, Chris! So glad to have connected with you and your blog. I like your level headed intelligence. Yes, demand for books is what will keep the industry going. People read for the same reason we write––to connect with our Selves. (Oh, that pesky capital S, but it has great relevance in personality theory.) I can reach inner depths while writing that only living in the meditation hall of my ashram could rival. Most of my writer friends are voracious readers as well. What those who read but don’t write want from books is us to take them where we go. This is a built in yearning, part of the human package. People will reach as high as they can see. Not too high for most, alas. I share your opinion of popular culture. The publishing industry pitches to the lowest common denominator. If squeezed, I expect they’ll aim lower and at more predictable sales. I look to small presses and self-publishing to see us through the next ten years, but I want to raise the quality of the product of both. By “us” I mean those who read and write and want something that satisfies the whole person. The publisher/literary agent/author/writer system is very diseased. Authors are placed in a permanently inferior and slavish position, off balance and disempowered forever, unless they’re Stephen King or the like. Unfortunately for me, I have an MA in counseling in addition to my other academic gold stars. The pathology leaps out if you have eyes to see and name it. Those without the vocabulary just feel bad. Better sign off. I’ll explore your site as time permits. I’ve been on the web many years, too. I was advised to set up my sandynathan site and sandranathan blog, but my on-line heart lives on our ranch site. Search for ranchovilasa dash spurs dot com (Get all the parts. Our software is buggy.) That’s my Big Mama site. Ten or so years of articles, highly illustrated. I have no idea how these blog things work, but I’d be honored if you were on my blog roll. How do you do that?

  2. Pingback: More Perfect Union: Publishing « Barataria - the work of Erik Hare

  3. Pingback: Fairyland « Barataria - the work of Erik Hare

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