It’s a Book Group, not a Book Herd
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Michael Dirda, former editor of the Washington Post’s Book World, has a nice piece in the most recent Bookforum about the shortcomings of the bestseller list. It’s food for thought for book groups. Most groups aren’t reading James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, or the other name-recognition über-sellers, but book groups do seem to have their own must-read titles.
You know the books I’m talking about: at any given time there are four or five titles that it seems every book group is adding to the schedule. They’re the books that have received a magical combination of publicity and praise, and almost any media outlet you consult will tell you that without this book, your group will just not be up to snuff.
These A-list selections are much more appropriate and interesting books for groups to read than the mass-mania titles that they fight for space with on the bestseller list, but selecting them still has its problems. The biggest is that enough books are anointed in this way that your group can survive on a steady diet of them. It’s the reading equivalent of eating every meal at the same four or five chain restaurants that live on the main drag in every small city in America. It tastes good, but after a while it will taste the same, and ultimately it isn’t so good for you.
Digital book sales are only going to exacerbate the problem, as the number of books getting strong publicity will shrink, and author name recognition will become ever more important. Unknowns and authors on the midlist are endangered species, at least those who hope to make a steady living from their writing. It’s a paradox that in an age where it’s easier than ever to get published and to sell a few books, it’s harder than ever to find enough readers to support a writing career.
Look, I get it: a very important part of book grouping is to share a common experience with others. We often join book groups because we’re starved for that chance to talk with others about our reading. This doesn’t mean, however, that we need to read the same books as every other group all the time. Balance the desire to pick the latest and greatest titles with other more adventurous choices.
Dig a little deeper and find other great authors. They need your readership, and you need them in your reading diet. Yes, if you take chances, you’ll run across a few books that will leave a bad taste in your mouth, but more often, you’ll find delightful new flavors that you didn’t know existed.