I found myself thinking blasphemous thoughts today: What is the point in reading this book?
I was choosing which book to start next for fun, and it came down to a battle between The Marriage Plot and Sima’s Undergarments for Women. The first is famous if you’re in the literary world: The Marriage Plot is by Jeffrey Eugenides, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and just came out this Christmas with the help of a pretty heavy marketing campaign. But Sima’s Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stranger-Ross, is somewhat of an unknown. (That’s misleading: it has over 100 reviews on Goodreads, which is a very good number indicating many readers, but to me it’s an unknown because I found it all by myself in the corner of a bookstore and have never heard of anyone who has heard of it.)
I ended up deciding on Sima’s, for a variety of reasons that were practical (it had bigger type, which is easier to read while exercising) as well as literary (was I really up for something as heavy as a Pulitzer-prize winning novel this morning?). Enter the blasphemous thoughts. As I walked to class, I figured I’d be done with the book this weekend, or today if it really grabbed me, and then it would go on my bookshelf and I’d think of it only every now and then. This is what happens with most books I read: they’re a source of pleasure while I’m reading them, but afterwards, unless I’m actually reminded of them, they disappear into the myriad of fictional worlds I’ve read before.
And as I was thinking this, I realized that I wouldn’t feel the same if it were The Marriage Plot in my backpack. Devoting my time to Eugenides somehow seems more productive and consequential, even though the difference is really that he’s won a prestigious award and Stranger-Ross has not. But that’s not really the difference, is it?
What really sets these two books apart is that people know and care about one of them. If I tell people I’m reading the new Jeffrey Eugenides, they will have at least vaguely heard of him. Many of them will have read Middlesex, and some will even have already beat me to The Marriage Plot. Instantly, we’ll have something to talk about, and I might even earn some clout. The Marriage Plot, in Bordieu’s terms, is social capital.
But Sima’s Undergarments for Women does little for me if no one has heard of it. Certainly, it will serve as evidence that I read, but other than that, people will most likely simply wonder what on earth a book with that kind of title could be about. Books that people don’t know usually end conversations rather than start them.
This isn’t just about getting social traction from what books we read. I think most people prefer books that other people are reading to obscure ones. We buy bestsellers not only because they have been popularly vetted but because they are popular. Knowing the book will put us in the “cool” club (at least among readers). At some point, there is even social consequences if you haven’t read the book (for example, social exclusion for not having read Harry Potter; or, for a somewhat more normal example, you’d better have read The Hunger Games if you’re planning on seeing the movie next month).
The fact of the matter is that reading is a solitary act. It’s between you and the book, and if it’s a good book, you’ll probably snap at anyone trying to get between the two of you. But despite stereotypes, most readers are normal people who want normal human interaction as well as that special connection with the book. That’s why we want to share the best books we’ve read and why the English major exists: to connect people to those books we love and, in the process, to connect with those people.
So if I’m reading a book no one else knows, what’s the point?
This thought process all happened before I’d even started the book. I’m fifty pages in and hooked, of course. The point of reading the book is that it is entertaining, well-written, and is introducing me to characters who live and think differently than I do and who have insights into human nature I would never have. But the question remains: how much do we read what we read for personal enjoyment and how much do we read for social connection?