Why We Read What We Read by Lisa Adams and John Heath and an Interview with the Authors

Why We Read What We Read by Lisa Adams and John Heath is the second book I read for the Dewey Decimal Challenge  back in 2009 and the first one I could recommend. Ms. Adams and Mr. Heath have read a wide range of best selling books and come up with an entertaining and enlightening overview of what Americans read most.

Why We Read What We Read is divided by genres. The authors take a look at diet and self-help books, religious and spirituality books, relationship guides, romance novels, political nonfiction, adventure thrillers, literary fiction, Oprah books and, of course, The Da Vinci Code. While their book is a serious study, their approach is humorous, much like that of a very smart student who prefers to sit in the back row passing notes. For example their take on Sean Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

His treatment of each habit can be monumental; for instance, his presentation of the fourth habit, “Think Win/Win,” reaches nearly mock-epic proportions. To the uninitiated, this practice would appear to need little defence, but Covey spends thirty pages arguing that win-win is generally superior to other possibilities, such as, for example, lose-lose. There are charts listing all the possible permutations, with analyses of the pros and cons of each. Clearly, Covey often doesn’t quite know when to stop (he is the father of nine, in case one is looking for further evidence). And he’s got graphs and pictures. This is a project born for the boardroom, with enough diagrams to inspire even the most ineffective middle-management wannabe.

One of the good things about reading books about books is that you can become familiar with so much without actually having to read it all. I do read bestsellers, though not many best selling self-help books, diet books, or relationship books. Why We Read What We Read is certainly one way to fill in this hole in one’s education. Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus by John Grey, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands by Dr. Laura and Relationship Rescue by Dr. Phil, and so many other titles are all summed up as follows:

They may be physically dissimilar brothers, but the DNA nevertheless proves their connections; a preference for celebrity authorities; simple analyses of problems; quick and relatively easy, comfortable fixes; and an appeal to our deepest preconceptions (and fears) about the roles of men and women. The multicolored messiness of real-life partnering is filtered through nature’s (or God’s) chromosomal prism to prove that only the ends of the spectrum actually exist, red versus blue; Mars versus Venus; male versus female. The differences between genders are exaggerated and caricatured to the point where surrender is the only reasonable response.

The authors examine two sub-sets of books on spirituality: Christian books and books on New Age Spirituality; two genres that are often at war with each other. The arguments each set of books present is examined fairly, if a bit snarkily, but as the authors conclude it is impossible to prove an argument about spirituality–one either believes or one doesn’t. Even if the Bible or some other text is quoted as evidence, one must believe that text and also believe that it is being interpreted correctly, often by someone who cannot read it in its original language.

The book concludes with a look at literary fiction and non-fiction and at Oprah books. I admit that I was surprised to find that there really is no “Oprah book.” Ultimately, the authors find no real difference between the books on Oprah and the rest of the best selling literature of the day. What they did find was that Oprah and her audience read for one main reason, realness. They all wanted a story they could identify with, place themselves inside, as though it could or did happen to them. This may be one reason why Oprah became so angry with James Frey once he admitted that his memoir A Million Little Pieces was largely fictional. (For the record, I read it and I knew it! No one gets a root canal without anesthetic.)

If you’re looking for a book that will add a few titles to your TBR stack, I don’t think Why We Read What We Read will help you. But it will give you some insight into what’s on the best seller list and to why so many people are buying a reading the same books. It may also give you some food for thought and more than a few laughs on the way.

I read this book as part of the Dewey Decimal Challenge back when I was keeping my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. and was still doing lots of challenges.  The idea was to read a book from every century of the Dewey Decimal System.  Why We Read What We Read was my book for the 200’s.  I really enjoyed the Dewey Decimal Challenge because it forced me to read from the parts of the library I usually don’t enter, and becuase it forced me to spnd time browsing those parts of the library.  In fact, I had so much fun with it that I decided to ask the authors for an interview.  Ms. Adams and Mr Heath proved to be one of the better interviews I did, back when I was still doing interviews.  They were lots of fun and very easy to work with. Here’s the interview:

I usually don’t ask this but what was the inspiration for Why We Read What We Read? Were you regular readers of best sellers before you started this project? Did you discover any authors you intend to keep reading?

We’re pretty big book nerds. While hunting for a book we could write together, we realized we were both fascinated by the bestseller lists (which we knew little about) and would enjoy writing snarky reviews of popular titles. Voila! While we haven’t followed the lists as intensely as we did while researching our book, we definitely keep an eye on them. We discovered several authors whose work we plan to keep reading, such as David McCullough, Malcolm Gladwell, Eric Schlosser, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Andre Dubus III, and Audrey Niffenegger.

I tried to find out if the two of you are married via Google. (They say everything can be Googled these days.) I found only one source that answered this question; it said yes. I hope it was correct because I’m going to plunge in and ask this question. What can you tell us about working as a married team? How do you divide the job? Do you think your experience would make you good guests on the Dr. Phil show?

We have been hitched in spirit for some time, though we are actually getting legally married in three weeks! While we have written books alone and co-written books with others, this was actually our first book together. It was a wonderful experience (and we’re not just saying that to avoid getting the silent treatment). One of the most enjoyable parts about it was that we could write with the other in mind, adding in phrases and jokes that we knew the other would love. We motivated each other to keep writing; we cheered each other up when we felt overwhelmed. It all worked because we were committed to the same vision of our book and could both write in the same style. That’s not to say we didn’t have any frustrations, but overall the experience was extremely positive, and we definitely plan to do it again.

In general, Lisa read and wrote about the fiction books, and John read and wrote about the nonfiction books—though in some cases we swapped or both read the same book. After writing a portion of the book, each of us would have the other read and edit that section. Then we worked on weaving the various sections together to make cohesive chapters.

As for Dr. Phil—the answer is yes, we would make great guests on any talk show! (wink wink)

In your chapter on relationship advice books you sum them up as all having the same basic characteristics: “a preference for celebrity authorities; simple analysis of problems; quick and relatively easy, comfortable fixes; and an appeal to our deepest preconceptions and fears” which I think also applies to the diet and exercise books and possibly to the books on religion and spirituality. I recently attended an inservice, I teach middle school in the North Bay, and found what the two presenters were saying fit this description almost to a “t”. This did not exactly inspire hope for improving education any time soon, but it did give me a critical framework to work from when evaluating their presentation. What do you hope readers take away from your analysis of self-help and relationship books? Were you concerned that your readers might end up thinking they should simply “trust no one”?

Ultimately we hoped that people would understand the ways that many self-help, inspiration, relationship, and diet books keep readers in the same vicious cycle, providing temporary comfort without actually solving problems. While self-help books can truly be helpful and inspiring, reading alone is far from enough: it takes significant action on the reader’s part to make genuine, long-term change.

Yours is the best, most enlightening, evaluation of Oprah’s Book Club that I have read to date. I was surprised to hear you say that there really isn’t an “Oprah Book” since it’s a term that is used so often and everyone seems to have agreed on what it means. With that in mind, do you have a favorite Oprah book? I imagine there are people out there who mainly read the books she recommends. What do think of the experience her regular readers are having?

We were surprised by the overall high quality that we found on Oprah’s list. Before reading any of the books, we had understood them to be maudlin and poorly written—most people we knew (snobs, it’s true) referred derisively to “Oprah books.” And while we did find some of her selections to be the weepy tomes we originally expected, we were generally pretty impressed. Oprah’s choices tend to be the best on the bestseller lists—so her regular readers could do much worse. Our personal favorites are House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

In chapter 5, “Soul Train: Religion and Spirituality” you hit two nails on the head as far as I am concerned. One, that the readers of religious writing must trust that the writer is correct since there is no way to prove anything he or she says. This is true even when the writer is interpreting scriptures. And two, that trusting the word of someone who interprets the Bible without the ability to read it in it’s original language is like trusting a Shakespeare scholar who cannot read English. In light of that what do you think of the growing political power of people like Rick Warren who recently used his interpretation of the Bible to help pass California’s Proposition 8 which discriminates against lesbian and gay people? (In fairness I should tell you that my marriage is one of those that will be ended if Ken Starr has his way in court.) Have you come across any books on religion or spirituality that sincerely deepened your understanding of either?

While we are not religious people, we are fairly interested in and educated about religion—so it is fair to say that we were pretty appalled by much of the bestselling religious writing we reviewed. Fans of Rick Warren we are not, and the fact that he and other bestselling authors of his ilk have any political power is both alarming and mind-boggling.

However, we did truly enjoy exploring the spiritual/religious genre. This was the area of the bestseller lists with which we were least familiar; and in reading these books, we discovered a whole fascinating world of arguments and sniping that we never knew existed. Delving into the ongoing battle between the fundamentalist Christian and New Age viewpoints opened our eyes and taught us a lot about American readers.

I want to ask at least one question about the Left Behind series, of which you both read all 5000 plus pages, but I don’t think I can without being overly snarky. Have you seen any of the movie versions? Which do you think are better, the books or the movies?

We considered watching the first movie, but honestly—we like to keep our memories of Kirk Cameron safely in the Growing Pains years where they belong! It would be hard to imagine the movie being worse than the book…but somehow we think it probably is.

Much has been written lately about the decline of the printed book review and the rise of the web review. Have you been following the book blog scene? Do you think it will eventually have an effect on the best seller lists?

Perhaps the greatest irony in the two of us writing Why We Read What We Read is that we rarely read book reviews! We’re kind of anal people who prefer to let a book unfold on its own rather than read too much about it prematurely. That said, we’re certain that online book reviews will continue to grow in readership. The truly talented reviewers will find an audience, whether their work is digital or printed. Personally, we think it’s a good thing that the field is expanding. We have experienced how a printed review can make or break a book—from both sides—and it’s a little alarming how much power a few people can have.

Lisa, I did spent some time reviewing your website, http://www.lisaadamswriting.com/ and came away from it admiring you as a sort of writer/gun-for-hire. You write press releases, brochures, fiction, non-fiction, web site content, technical manuals, just about everything one can name; offer a full range of editing and proofreading services; and even offer on-line courses in writing and grammar. It seems like a heck-of-a-way to make a living. Is this typical for writers these days? How did you become a writer? How do you like it? Have you any advice for people looking to make money writing?

Business writing is definitely a way for any talented writer to make a good living these days. In college I majored in English with a writing emphasis and, after graduating, got a job as a marketing writer with a media production agency. From there, I launched my own consulting business. As you can tell, I enjoy variety!

I don’t think there’s any one “typical” path for writers. Sadly, very few make a living writing books alone, but it’s certainly possible to support oneself by writing for companies, advertising agencies, and PR firms. Excellent writers are always in demand!

Because I regularly feature posts about my dog, a Basset named Dakota who likes to eat my books, I like to end each interview by asking if you have any pets and if they have ever gone after your books? If so, do they prefer best sellers?

Yes, we love our pets! We have a two-year-old black lab/border collie mix named Lu (short for Emmylou) and a chubby black cat named Vetta (short for Svetlana). Lu is pretty good as far as dogs go, but she did—in a rare burst of ferocity—destroy our copy of A Brief History of Time. If you’re interested in the heinous details, Lisa actually wrote an article about the event.

I’d like to thank Lisa Adams and John Heath for participating in this little project. And I like to wish them the best of luck and congratulations on their upcoming wedding.

Since this review and interview were both publishe on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I have read and seen the movie version of Left Behind and I can honestly say that the movie is better.  I know.  It’s a bit of a shock, but it’s true.  The book just went on and on, dreaming up scenarios of what would happen after the Rapture–planes without pilots that crashed, impossible traffic jams in baseball parking lots where every other car no longer has a driver–it was a bit fun at first but got old fast. The movie covered this territory fairly quickly and got on with the story.  Plus the movie avoided all that business about the unborn being raptured which left behind some very upset women.  That was creepy.  All the kids under 13 were raptured in both the movie and the book which always got me thinking…..what if you were two thirds of the way through your Bar Mitzvah when the Rapture came.  Would you still be raptured, or would you be officially a man and therefore old enough to know that you should convert and therefore left behind because you hadn’t converted?  The books may have addressed this in a later volume, but I didn’t read the rest of the series like Lisa Adams and John Heath did.

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