The process of reading a book begins well before a creased spine. The bookstore shelves and the hundreds of covers, the shop clerks’ and friends’ recommendations, these may be more formality than influence. Sure, these steps in the process play a role (even if one isolated to theatrics), but the more formative processes start earlier, so early in fact, is it worth asking could they be more closely related to habit than free choice? How, really, do you choose which book to read?
A book, generally speaking, and for the purposes of this post, is no quick-flip, toilet pamphlet. Reading a book takes dedication, concentration, focus, and devotion. In this way, books—and the habits their dedication create and encourage—carry similar personal influence as say, political persuasion or even religion. Indoctrination has a power much greater than cultural trends.
Let’s step back to examine the time when many people would consider the most socially formative of a person’s life: pre- and mid-adolescence. Given agreement on the formative power of these years we can then begin to dissect why so often we hear personal taste defended with simple statements of upbringing or original introduction. How many times have you dismissed a favorite band’s newest album? How many times have you heard, “that movie is great, but his earlier work is so much better.” How many times have you heard “I started reading [author] when I was young and still love him today?” And more importantly, how many times are these statements, once said, left to account for any possible argument otherwise. After all, opinion is opinion, right?
Not exactly. We spend time—precious time—discovering our preferences (or having them discover us, as the case may be) that consciously pulling away from those roots is not only difficult, but in many cases can be a micro-cultural faux pas. It’s the hipster mentality in some respects. We cultivate and become comfortable with a close group of like-minded individuals (re: genres/bands/directors/etc.) that branching out often connotes a perceived attack on those very formative influences. Never mind that the larger society may have something truly worth heeding, devotion to a core group of unnecessarily enforced principals curbs such experimentation1.
This isn’t a new idea, not at all (for a quick overview of the philosophical concept of free will, I recommend listening to Alan Saunders and Daniel Dennett’s discussion, Human Consciousness and Free Will). Merely, I bring up the concept as a way to help us understand just exactly what we are up against when we 1) “choose” which book to read, and more deflating 2) when we authors try to sell books of our own.
What makes books so much different from other mediums?
My goal here, it would seem, is to strip away the magic and aesthetic pleasure from the reading experience until all that remains is a conscious system of if/thens made to cultivate so much data and worry that you’d be better to build an apocalypse bunker, devoid of all text, than to crease the spine of a highly anticipated blockbuster from James Patterson (though, you’d be wise to avoid the latter no matter my intentions with this blog post). Yes, it seems that way. But no. Rather, it is important to understand the very basics of the free will argument if we are to at all suppose books as a unique medium.
The primary difference between books and the aforementioned mediums is the level of dedication it takes on the part of the imbiber to consume the product. And time, though it’s only a single factor of many, is an incredibly important one. How long does it take to listen to a full album? About sixty minutes. How long does it take to watch a movie? About one hundred minutes. How long does it take to read a book? Days, sometimes weeks. The very format—text packed tight on thin paper—insists on information saturation.
This is why, too often, we find ourselves unwilling to extend beyond our comfort zone when the too-rare chance comes along to start reading a new book.
What happens when we strip away context?
Books, too, tend to be marginalized in way that other forms of entertainment aren’t, and not specifically in a demoralizing way. Books still seem to connote intellectual elitism (no matter how many published Harry Shades of Twilight tomes would imply otherwise). By definition, elitism establishes a sense of select- and exclusiv-ity, traits that temper a group’s sense of fraternity. Once bonded, one dare not break those bonds; once a fan of horror fiction, one dare not stray far from the light.
What if this elitism could be stripped away? Better yet, what if a book could be entirely devoid of context? That means universal everything—font, leading, kerning, cover design, materials, even the subconscious recommendation engine that drives one to find a book. What if the entire reading process took place in a cultural and aesthetic vacuum? Writer, thinker, and swell man extraordinaire Pablo D’Stair and I recently had a back and forth about context—though it began as just one of our many standard exchanges—which ended with each of us on the opposite side of a yay/nay context debate2.
Basically, Pablo (and he should correct me if I misrepresent him here) takes the side that reading in such a vacuum would be ideal, that letting the words speak for themselves, lacking all preconceptions, would let the central import of the text shine. I may agree with this to some extent, but rather than argue the ideal, I tend to divert the conversation by insisting that rather than aiming for an ideal we should recognize that context is unavoidable (and if treated correctly, actually integral to the reading experience; but I’ll save this aside for a separate post).
I would argue that it’s primarily this context, and our absolute inability to escape it, that keeps us reading what we’ve always read (followed closely by the time factor mentioned above). And marketing departments know it. Publishers will never fight for a world sans-context because that machine, that recommendation engine, is what isolates us as consumers. “But Caleb, wouldn’t a branched-out reader mean possible new avenues for book sales?” Possibly. However, in a cutthroat marketing landscape where time is a currency and a trained consumer is its own demographic, pushing a reader to a new stack of books means pulling a reader away from bankable consistency. Consistency makes for strong fiscal projections.
Imagine, then, if readers could instead train the publishers, if readers could make a collective shift toward a context-less world. Though having no context is impossible, would less context be a second best alternative?
1 Something can be said for earlier works having the benefit of the artist’s ambiguity allowing slow (re: nurtured) creation, but likewise, a fan who embraces an artist’s work does so for some reason, meaning any deviation from that initial love could be sacrilege, no matter how long that initial love took to create and distribute.
2Keep an eye out at the Sunday Observer’s Montage column for this full exchange, which should be available during the months of May and June, 2012, simultaneously online and in print.