A great many book buyers are book consumers. They buy a book with the intent of consuming it as a product. For such readers, books are a product, meant to provide a bit of entertainment to while away the hours spent on a bus, train, plane, or waiting in an office for an appointment. A book is, to them, akin to a movie or CD - a source of entertainment that can be disposed of after its completion, likely with little thought given to it afterward than "Well, yes, I found that book to be enjoyable", or in cases of books that did not provide the sought-after passive, easy entertainment, "I didn't like it and wouldn't recommend it to you."
The book (or in the advancing digital age, the e-book) is seen here as a product. Something produced by writers, perhaps following a formula that allows for easy communication of ideas. Only occasionally is the book-product viewed as being something idiosyncratic, something that may contain ideas that will clash with our expectations. Oftentimes, the consumer will reject those books that run too counter to their expectations, as they find these books to be "dull," "difficult," "uninteresting," and if they are more honest with themselves, "non-engaging."
The book consumer and her attitudes dominates book matters these days, just as it has ever since mass readerships emerged (and likely before then). For them, the book is to be consumed, it is not something to waste a lot of time thinking about or arguing for or against. For these people, those who do engage in this sort of textual wrestling may be viewed, in the words of one such consumer, as providing "wanker's answers." Even in their bafflement, they fail to go much further than a very general like/dislike divide.
Too often the question surrounding books is "what should I read next?" rather than "how and why should I read this?" I am currently reading Harold Bloom's 2000 book on the joys of reading and its mechanics, How to Read and Why. He begins his book with the prologue "Why Read?" I want to quote a few passages from this section to support what I will say shortly about book readers as opposed to book consumers:
Sir Francis Bacon, who provided some of the ideas that [Dr. Samuel] Johnson put to use, famously gave the advice: "Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe or take for granted, not to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider." (p. 21)
Let me fuse Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson into a formula of how to read: find what comes near to you that can be put to the use of weighing and considering, and that addresses you as though you share the one nature, free of time's tyranny. (p. 22)
Opening yourself to a direct confrontation with Shakespeare at his strongest, as in King Lear, is never an easy pleasure, whether in youth or in age, and yet not to read King Lear fully (which means without ideological expectations) is to be cognitively as well as aesthetically defrauded. A childhood largely spent watching television yields to an adolescence with a computer, and the universtity receives a student unlikely to welcome the suggestion that we must endure our going hence even as our going hither: ripeness is all. Reading falls apart, and much of the self scatters with it. All this is past lamenting, and will not be remedied by any vows or programs. What is to be done can only be performed by some version of elitism, and that is now unacceptable, for reasons both good and bad. There are still solitary readers, young and old, everywhere, even in the universities. If there is a function of criticism at the present time, it must be to address itself to the solitary reader, who reads for herself and not for the interests that supposedly transcend the self. (p. 23)
OK, I'm sure that for some reading this, as soon as I said the magical words "Harold Bloom," their eyes rolled back and a bit of a snarl emerged from the guttural depths. He is, after all, somewhat outspoken about books that millions have adored that he found to have little to no redeeming literary value and he said so, quite bluntly. For these readers, chances are dim that what he has to say here will be considered because they just don't like the man. In this age of instant communication (and a dearth of reflective commentary), what writers and critics say off-the-cuff tends to be recorded, cataloged, and used to delegitimize the arguments made by that author/critic as well as anyone else who may sympathize with the viewpoints expressed. Referencing again a single internet forum remark, the puerile argument that a work can be dismissed through ad hominems is frankly ridiculous.
Now with that little obstacle hopefully out of the way, let's look at what Bloom says here. In these three quotes, two of which are really summations of earlier authors' viewpoints on reading, Bloom argues against a passive reading. He doesn't say it in quite the words I used above, but he is arguing against a simple consumer approach to literature. Writings ought not to be boiled down to whether or not they agree with one's own sentiments. If that were the case, then such a rigid orthodoxy would be established as to make the worst excesses of the Spanish Inquisition seem tame by comparison. There has to be room for multiple interpretations. Conversely, one should not read just to find things to fling against its author. After all, the Devil may quote Scripture for his own purposes. To peruse a book just to find condemnatory materials is not reading, but rather prosecuting a work and its author for crimes that may not have been committed.
In composing this, I thought back to the most recent rounds of discussions surrounding "sacred cows" and "sacred bullshit." In Paul Smith's article yesterday (the second link of the two in this paragraph), he mentions J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as only a small part of his argument that there should be no sacred cows. As a test (and to attract more attention to his argument), I relabeled his post title as "Tolkien as a sacred cow of fantasy" and posted it on a forum I frequent. The responses were illuminating, and I am not being sarcastic in noting this. It was interesting how detailed of an argument against criticizing Tolkien was made in response to a post that had a far larger scope than just one author. Perhaps they were misled in part by my more provocative title, but I suspect that for some, as soon as the word "Tolkien" appeared, they felt the need to rush out and "defend" a work that has sold hundreds of millions of copies over nearly 60 years. Amazing.
The admonition to avoid reading to "find talk and discourse" is an interesting one, particularly in this day and age of book clubs (in-person and online) and social media surrounding books. It is one that I am not sure I agree with much at all, considering how highly I value discourse, but I think I see the point being raised. Stories, unless composed to be read or sung aloud, are intended to be digested by individuals. Perhaps afterward, there can be a discussion with fellow readers (not consumers, mind you), but the purpose of the reading should not be centered around what others have to say in agreement or in argument against. This I believe ties in to the point Bloom makes that in reading, the story "addresses you as though you share the one nature." Reading a book, as opposed to consuming a book, is an act of dialogue, one that the reader engages in to see if s/he can commune with the Text that the Author has composed, a communion that is almost as mystical and timeless as the Holy Eucharist is for Catholics and Orthodox. Dialogues aren't yes/no, agree/disagree axes that a Likert Scale can measure. They are conversations in which the reader opens him/herself up to what the Text has to say.
This is, I believe, the tricky part in reading. It is not easy to open one's self up to strangers. Much easier to maintain a pleasant façade toward strangers, both living persons and ideas found in books, while maintaining a detachment from commitment. Conversely, sometimes we might fear to delve further, lest something beloved (like Tolkien's work for many) turn out to be not as wondrous as we first imagined. Last year when I re-read LotR, I certainly found myself having a complex, mixed reaction to the story (and to other Tolkien works that I read). Perhaps in the near future, I'll distill what I hinted at in those March 2009 essays on LotR into a single post that can be considered by others.
Consideration is the most important point that Bloom raises here. Everyday, a person has to make thousands of evaluations, considering whether or not to take one course as opposed to another. Some of these evaluations are well-considered, while others are rash. In reading a book (again, as opposed to consuming it), a reader ought to weigh and consider the text. Trust, but verify. Test it out, kick the tires, if you will. Then turn around and do the same to yourself.
Yes, do such weighing and considering to yourself as well as to the text. You are not an infallible creature. You may not "get" the text. You may confuse ignorance for profundity. You just may be flat-out wrong and just are too mule-stubborn to admit it. A lot of people are that way and not just about stories. Get over it. Admit that you can and often are wrong. Reconsider, if only after a space of time has elapsed, what you have concluded, perhaps rashly. You may find that your original take still holds true to you in large part, but likely you will have gained a greater understanding and appreciation for how this occurred. You may learn how to judge ideas better once you learn how to weigh and judge your own self. Consideration and testing forge deeper bonds with stories than any book consumption could ever manage.
So, are you a book reader or a book consumer? I'll let you be the judges of that. For myself, there is always more to weigh and consider.