How We Buy and Read Books

A few uncomfortable truths.

November 19, 2013

Earlier this month I shared mini-reviews of the last 11 books that I had read, and asked if you would be willing to do the same.

One person in our community who took me up on the offer was Unemployed_Northeastern.  

What struck me the most about Unemployed_Northeastern’s list versus my own list is the quality gap.  

This reader (and member of our community) is reading much better books than I am.

Here is Unemployed_Northeastern's list:

1. Letters from the Earth, Mark Twain
2. All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
3. Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe
4. Flaws and Fallacies in Statistical Thinking, Stephen K. Campbell
5. Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
6. Cancer Ward, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Bethell/Burg translation)
7. Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow
8. The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
9. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond
10. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami (Rubin/Gabriel translation)
11. When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail, Eric Jay Dolin 

What does what we read say about us?

What sort of judgments about who we are can be derived from the books that we have read?

In comparing my last 11 books to those of Unemployed_Northeastern I’d draw the following (troubling) conclusions:

Reading for Knowledge vs. Reading for Connection:

All of my last 11 books were published in 2013.  Most quite recently.  I choose the next book that I will read in large part based on what books I think that you will read.  Or are reading now.  This is book reading in service of conversations and connections.  

My book reading process is not done until I have written about the book, talked about the book, and sought out others who have also read the book.

This is reading as a public act.  

Reading that is connected to my work, to my professional networks, and to the connections that I made in-person and online.

The problem with this approach is the risk that the public aspects of reading end up displacing the private and authentic pleasures of books. 

That choosing books based on what makes sense to review and talk about will mean that I will not read books that I might love, books that may teach me many things.  

The reason that I read new books is that those are the books that members of my community (local and virtual) are also likely to be reading.  

You are reading the same book reviews that I am.   You are part of the same book conversations.

This approach can result in a reading diet that is shallow and faddist.  

A parade of mainstream, middle-of-the road books.  

Books by only established authors.  

Books on topics that are hot at the moment.

My approach leaves too little room for experimentation.  For carving out new paths.   For discovering an author that nobody else is talking about.  

Books and Technology Determinism:

My second disturbing conclusion from comparing my recent reading list with that of Unemployed_Northeasterner is how book quality, and book technology, appear to be inversely coupled.

The books that I choose to buy and read are the books that I can purchase from Amazon and Audible that are Whispersync enabled.   There needs to not only be a Kindle e-book version and an audio version of the title, these two electronic copies need to have been configured to sync with each other.

Of Unemployed_Northeastern’s list, only The Mill of the Floss, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and 1Q84 met these criteria.  (3 of 11 books).

The reason that I insist on Whispersync is that the technology improves my reading productivity.  

I can read more books as I can switch back and forth between the audiobook and the e-book.  Reading while commuting or exercising (the Audible app on my iPhone), reading while in line at the grocery store (the Kindle iPhone app), and reading at night in bed (Kindle Paperwhite).

The goal to read more is tied up with my desire to share what I read.  To utilize the books that I read as content for writing and presentations.  To make connections over books with people in my network.

My reading productivity and my work productivity are tied together, hence the use of technology to increase both.

This approach, of letting the technology dictate my reading choices, is freighted with all sorts of worrying downsides.  

Rather than reading the book that you recommend I will end up reading something else, unless that is your recommendation has been made Whispersync ready.  

I’m doubting that Unemployed_Northeastern will fall into this technology deterministic reading trap.

How has technology changed how you read?

How has the growing dominance of Amazon (and its subsidiaries) changed how you select, purchase and consume your books?

Who amongst you are holding out?  Standing up for book choice and reading flexibility?   

Is your reading diet more varied and more adventurous because you check your books out of your library, or buy from your local independent bookstore?

Are you reading for your private pleasure and the expansion of your own knowledge, independent of how a given book may serve your professional goals?

Or are you more like me?  

Reading the current, the hot, the popular, the mainstream.

Choosing your books based on their format and platform as much as their substance.

Sending all of your book buying dollars to Amazon.

What do your book buying and book reading practices say about you?


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