Why We Read What We Read by John Heath and Lisa Adams is not the book I expected it to be. This is not a bad thing. Let me explain. I had expected the book to be an investigation of sorts into the publishing industry and its dirty little secrets. What the book turned out to be is an investigation into the books–bestsellers–people are reading and what it says about our culture and psychology which is very likely more interesting than the book I expected.

Heath and Adams have combed the bestseller lists from 1993-2005 for both fiction and nonfiction. They have compared and contrasted. They have observed trends and grouped books accordingly. Why We Read is broken up into chapters based on the groups Heath and Adams created. These groups include self-help diet, finance and inspiration books, adventure novels and political nonfiction, love, romance and relationships, and religion and spirituality, among a few others The Da Vinci Code gets a chapter all to itself. Each chapter was full of interesting bits that I could go on and on about, but I’m not going to, you just have to read the book.

I will, however, give you some highlights. One of the chapters I found most astonishing was the romance and relationship chapter. According to statistics from the Romance Writers of America, romance fiction is the best selling genre fiction in the U.S. In 2004 romance fiction accounted for 54.9% of all popular fiction sold. Almost 65 million Americans read romance novels (most of them are women). Over 6 million people read more than 20 romance titles a year. Over a million of those read 51-100+ books a year. Heath and Adams write, “These numbers suggest that a great many people are intensely reliant on the emotional effects of reading these books.” Romance novels need to be taken seriously, especially if they truly are a form of coping mechanism:

their excessive and growing consumption presents such a sobering picture of the emotional state of women in America. The reading may provide temporary relief and genuine joy, but it doesn’t actually solve problems, first and foremost because escaping from difficulty will never revolutionize an unhappy marriage. More troubling, many of these books, especially the traditional romance novels, airbrush and glorify the old-fashioned marital standards that make women unhappy enough to read romances in the first place!

Sobering thoughts.

I don’t think I have yet mentioned how funny Heath and Adams are. The book is peppered with wry comments. They even include a list of Chicken Soup titles you will never see on the shelf. You can get a small taste of their humor in a bit of what they have to say about the plethora of religious books on the bestseller lists:

Yet it seems that we in America have this “religious” mentality not only about religion, but about everything–our diet, our relationships, our politics. We look to other people–to writers, no less, who barely qualify as people–to tell us how to live. We don’t go out in the world trusting our experience…and we very readily discard our experiences and take advice from “experts” instead. We don’t even trust our own reading of the Bible, a great book (and perennial bestseller) that will outlive every one of its bestselling interpreters. Why are we so religiously challenged?

In spite of the humor and lighthearted tone of the book, Heath and Adams have some worrisome things to say. The authors worry that the bestsellers reveal that

our reading too often simplifies, rather than adumbrates; commands, rather than suggests; answers rather than questions; pardons, rather than challenges; accuses rather than seeks to understand.

We read books looking for help and answers but only the kind of help and answers we want to hear. We do not read for ideas. Our opinions and world view are not challenged. And if they are we don’t believe it. Their study of the bestsellers also suggests that Americans do not read very carefully. They use The Da Vinci Code as a sort of case study on this. Many smart people thought the book was true. Because we can’t even seem to read well the simple books we agree with, Heath and Adams worry that “we may ultimately lose our ability to sift through complex information, to walk safely through the quagmire of indeterminancy, to work together in a world of difference to find common ground and progress.”

Occasionally some of the detailed discussion of the bestsellers got a bit tiresome and I wished a chapter or two was a bit shorter. Overall, however, I found the book good and quite interesting. Heath and Adams reveal that it isn’t only the decline in numbers of readers we need to be concerned about. We should also be troubled by what is being read and how (there is a great analysis of Oprah books). I don’t want you to think the authors are elitist in any way, there is nothing wrong with reading a bestseller. But if your reading never challenges you or makes you see the world a bit differently, if it doesn’t prompt you to change or act, then something isn’t right.

Why We Read What We Read should provide some thoughtful reading to anyone who values books for more than just an escape.