Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reading at a Distance (A Response Post)

The great-and-powerful Cait of Paper Fury recently asked us, Should We Read What Everyone Else is Reading? In her post, she responds to the following quote by Haruki Murakami in his book Norwegian Wood:

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” (source)
via Goodreads
To paraphrase, Cait was like, “What the heck? No!” She interpreted Murakami to mean, “Reading popular books limits your ability to think as an individual.” Cait challenges that sentiment because we interpret books in different ways, common reads help you connect with others, and popularity does not determine a book’s quality. Ultimately, you should read what you want. 

On the other hand, I was like, “Yup. That’s about right.” I think reading books in a community can limit readers, and so I am here to respectfully disagree with Cait.

Not completely though. Cait is totally right that we interpret books differently, which is why we still talk about books written two thousand years ago. We all get something different from our books and that’s why book discussions aren’t just good but vital—they broaden our perspective. Secondly, reading is a great way to connect with others on so many levels. Telling stories is a unique human trait, and sharing our humanness with other humans benefits humanity as a whole. 

Back to the disagreeing part: humor me a question. When did you last read a book alone? No, not alone in your room with the door shut; rather, when did you last pick up a book you’d never heard of, read it, did not discuss it, did not stumble onto anyone else’s discussions, and never reviewed it, starred it, or acknowledged you read it to anyone else?

I think for me it was July.

It's weird to bring up books we’ve read on an isolated island because we so rarely do it. Our reading culture is one of advertisements, reviews, and reputations. Not only do authors impact readers with their writing, but we as bloggers skew one another’s perceptions by posting positive or negative reviews. It’s almost like reading communities create a tank to be filled with opinions, and the popular ones float to the top.

Note that I said popular opinions, not positive or negative. Just popular. Prominent. If I say “Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight,” and you can tell me their overall reputations, that’s what I’m talking about.

via teen
When Murakami says we can only think what everyone else is thinking—and of course I am limited because I have no textual reference for this quote; I’m just responding to Cait—I don’t think it means you won’t have an individual interpretation, but rather your interpretation will be confined by the tank it is in.

Permit me a metaphorical example through Neal Shusterman’s Unwind Dystology, wherein he periodically inserts the story’s political campaigns for the collection of teenagers’ organs into his writing. On one side, witnesses insist a loved one would have died without a teenager’s unwound parts, or their children do more good in pieces than they would whole. On the other, campaigners say NO, unwinding teenagers is wrong; instead, we should punish criminals with unwinding and protect our youth. These are but a few examples.

They’re pretty fair. Diverse interpretations on the same issue are helping voters make an educated choice… right?

But wait. (SPOILERS) Shusterman reveals these arguments are paid for by the same people. While campaigners discuss who should be unwound, they avoid asking whether unwinding is morally acceptable at all. (END SPOILERS)

Essentially, when campaigners created a tank and filled it with different opinions of varying popularity, they prevented discussions they didn’t want voters to have.

via Goodreads
Many have agreed Murakami was wrong—everyone should read freely and social reading is great. I won’t dispute either point, but in my mind the real discussion boils down to this: what discussions are you missing because you are inside the tank when everyone else is?

Our situation isn't nearly as extreme as Unwind, and discussions in a full tank aren’t bad, silly, or pointless, but what I tend to see is a popular book with favorable opinions and unfavorable opinions but not particularly nuanced opinions because the book and the experience surrounding it take over. Thinking in the tank can mean you get stuck in the tank.

Do you need an example? Okay. How does your interpretation of a book change when you remove pleasure from the equation? Find a review, remove anything equivalent to “I don’t/like this,” and tell me what is left. What elements stand independently of enjoyment that make this book worth reading? It would even be pertinent to ask “how much of the review is left?” in some cases.

I don’t want your YA bookshelf to become an existential crisis, but that might align with Murakami’s intentions. When your opinions on and with other opinions, you might miss the discussion—the purpose—sitting outside those limited things. Cait’s right—books are popular because people love them and share them (and because companies market profitable books over average ones, lol). But sometimes you see the reputation for the book, and anything from Twilight to Pride and Prejudice will suffer for that.

You’ve probably guessed, I don’t read tons of popular YA books when they are in heat, breeding tanks full of opinions. I stay wary. I join the party late. I keep my thoughts close. To some, this makes me a book snob, and certainly, you could call me pretentious for believing you miss out on book discussions by reading trending novels. But, as I often say, I’m a malevolent reader. I think you’re sometimes limited by reading what everyone else is.

Then again, antisocial reading is kind of an acquired taste. Malevolent reader out.

Do you read popular books as they’re trending? How do you think this affects the way you perceive and discuss them?

(Don’t forget to check out Cait’s post, too! Also, while “researching” (read as: stalking comments) I found Deborah also responded with a defense of reading what you want. Go forth. Educate yourselves. Think about the discussions we aren’t having because we have made this topic an opinion tank.)


  1. I think it's interesting that you prefer to wait for a book's hype to die down before you read it. I actually do the same thing, too; unless I've been dying to read the book, I'll usually wait until the hype has died down to read the book. This is partly because if the book is super popular, I'd hate to constantly be bombarded with review after review of positive and negative opinions that might sway my thoughts on the book. Anyway, great post!

    1. Exactly—for me it's frustrating because it almost feels like you're reading other people's opinions instead of the work of its own merit. Thanks for reading, Precious!

  2. The fact that you used Unwind here makes me ridiculously happy, but I'm sure you know that already.

    I try to read popular books, but only if they look like they'll interest me -- I usually end up being disappointed in popular books, so now I only try to invest in the ones I genuinely care about. *shrug*

    1. Unwind is the best! And, indeed, the way Neal Shusterman poses such controversies is very thought-provoking.

      Yeah, popular books tend to almost get popular because of the hype, I've found, rather than any particular merit—I mean, when books are hyped more people who don't like the genre end up reading them because they've heard "it's so good."

  3. A very interesting post. ;) I think it's super interesting that we both interpreted the quote entirely differently...which totally underlines the fact that a whole bunch of people can be given the same book/text and get different opinions from it. I'm like entirely positive that society isn't going to think the same from reading the same books. *nods*
    I thought it was very curious what you said about the tank of opinions. I mean, I do get what you mean, like it seems very "popular" to hate on Twilight and adore Harry Potter, although I know tons of people who differ in those popular opinions too. And I think people can be influenced by friends or reviewers they admire or whatever. I don't think "popular" books are any less genuine then obscure books, because honestly, it's sometimes just luck that books even get popular. (I totally think Divergent only got super popular because it was riding on The Hunger Games craze.) HAH BUT I'M TOTALLY DIGRESSING HERE.

    Anyway. I'm a big believer in reading what you want, like I said very firmly in my post. xD We pretty much should read what we want and not judge each other either way.

    1. We do come up with a lot of different and interesting interpretations—and I don't deny that fact, just that maybe we won't come up with some opinions on our own, huh.

      Well, I am one who differs on both those things, so I know what you mean. XD I don't think that "popular" books are more or less genuine either, and I do realize that the publishing industry does give an unfair advantage to some people over others. (And I very much agree with you on the Divergent thing).

      Anyway, yes, reading what we like is ultimately the most important part!

  4. I've thought about this quote quite a bit since reading Cait's post and for me it has been an awfully long time since I've read a book completely alone.... It would have been before I got Goodreads, because now I broadcast everything on there. But I'm not sure if that's such a bad thing - lonely reading just isn't really for me. I love to read popular books and talk about them with others. I try to read them as soon as possible and I've become more onto it since I've started book blogging because I know when books are coming out... And yeah I don't really know where I'm going with this comment, but I guess I agree with both you and Cait.... Hahaha I'm totally on the fence about it.

    1. Lonely versus alone reading... For me it's not nearly so fun to read among other people, and in many ways because I don't often read books others read. But, it's good you've found a good place as a reader and and blogger, so either way, I'm glad you're where you want to be!

  5. YESSSSSSSS. I completely agree with your counter-argument, Heather. Cait made great points about developing discussion etc when reading as part of a community, but there is still a whole issue about readers reading for themselves. Case in point: I am TERRIBLE when it comes to recommendations. People leave me recommendations; I add them to my TBR list on GoodReads and then FORGET ALL about them. I read books because I WANT to read them, not because other people have told me to read them. I think that's the fastest was to overhyping and sure fire disappointment!

    Also, your point about a book's reputation is PERFECT: I used to love Twilight, but then everyone else started oving it so I stopped, and now that everyone's starting to hate on it I want to re-read it again! (I'm epically fickle, I know). But at the same time, I basically refuse to read The Hunger Games, because I feel like it might be overhyped and I don't want to be disappointed again.

    Anyway, great post!
    Beth x

    1. Thanks, Beth! Cait is really a master of discussion but there is something to be said for just doing it all on your own. I seriously can't keep track of recommendations, either! Hype can definitely be disappointing.

      See, that's why I am glad I waited to read Twilight, and I did actually like it, a lot! I did read the Hunger Games and was actually disappointed, so I can't blame you for waiting. Thanks for reading!

  6. Ooh, I really like this post, and I like a lot of what you say. It is true that the popular opinions tend to float to the top of the tank, and we can let our subconscious be influenced by those opinions if all we do is stay inside the tank. I think I take a middle ground on this. Like, I tend to come late to the party when it comes to popular books, and I don't run around seeking out the most popular books so I can see what everyone else is reading. But I do like to read a bunch of what everyone else has read so I can understand, perhaps, a bit more about the culture I live in. I also very much enjoy obscure books, and several rather obscure books are very high on my favorites list. So I definitely think it's important to have a mix. But I think, maybe, the most important thing is to, like you said (in so many words) check our opinions. Like, okay, I've written this review--now what am I really saying, and was I really thinking about this book or was I just spouting stuff?

    Great post!

    1. I'm glad you like it, Liz! It is definitely nice to be educated and informed about everything being read—understanding culture is a good way to put it, I think. But obscure and less popular books almost seem more meaningful because they aren't so used, you know? And, yes. There's a reason I don't do reviews very often. :) Thanks for reading!

  7. I found Cait's discussion on this really interesting (and remember, vaguely, seeing your comment saying you'd post your own discussion, so yay for continuing the discussions others start, although... in a way I do guess that's what comments are meant for. That and trolling! *advertisement wink*), although I didn't agree with all of it. I did agree with elemnts, like you- and similar elements to you- but not all, and it was really great to be able to come up with my own thoughts just from reading her post. I personally love the quote and feel attached to it, and I understand a level of the meaning: if you don't go out of your comfort zone, how will you think of unique things. But I also got what Cait meant: We all have unique understandings, even if we're reading the same things.
    It's an intense and deep conversation and hard to really settle on thoughts and meanings. I want to read and discuss with myself and read and discuss with others and have my own ideas and share others. So I guess I'm part of a big mix of ideas and thoughts, when it comes to this. In the end, I really agree with what Cait says in her above comment. "We pretty much should read what we want and not judge each other either way." I think that's a good way to go.

    1. XDD Yes, comments are a fun little place to go crazy. It's good that you recognize parts that you both agree and disagree with because that's a good way to make your own complex opinions. :) It even ties in with your summary: we have to balance the unique understandings with the unique experiences, yes?

      I'm glad you like to do both! Reading and not judging is something I definitely advocate, so happy reading as you do those things. :)


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