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Why We Read What We Read: A Delightfully Opinionated Journey Through Contemporary Bestsellers Paperback – 1 Sep 2007

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x8b2a009c) out of 5 stars 12 reviews
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8b287024) out of 5 stars An Interesting question 15 Oct. 2007
By MrsDarcy - Published on
Format: Paperback
Have you ever wondered why people read what they read? And what makes a book sell a ton of copies? Most of us probably don't spend much time looking at best seller lists and analyzing why those books are there. Aside from books that we all know can't help but be bestsellers, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, what makes certain books popular?

Fortunately for us, John Heath and Lisa Adams have attempted to answer these questions in their book Why We Read What We Read: A Delightfully Opinionated Journey Through Bestselling Books.

Heath and Adams read nearly 200 books in order to answer why we read what we read. Their purpose, as stated in the introduction, was to "provide a glimpse into the current state of the national psyche by looking closely at the books Americans buy---specifically, those books they have bought in the greatest numbers since 1990," because "these books resonate with broad segments of the reading public" (5).

This was quite an undertaking and there is so much in this book that I had some difficulty writing a review that covered it all!

In the introduction, Heath and Adams laid out their plan of attack: which books were considered bestsellers, how they decided on categories, which books they excluded from their list (old books made popular again by being made into movies, memoirs & biographies, reference books, and cookbooks), and which years to research. Heath and Adams sorted the rest of the books into 4 categories: hardcover fiction, hardcover non-fiction, trade paperback (fiction & non-fiction), and mass market paperback (fiction).

Why We Read What We Read is laid out in six chapters, not including the introduction and the appendix:

*Chapter One is titled "The Obvious: Diet, Wealth, and Inspiration." This chapter focused on books about, obviously, diets, how to become focused and wealthy, and become inspired. As Heath and Adams noted, "of course everyone wants to be slim, rich, and motivated, and always has" (23). Lately, the craze has been for "low-carb" diets.
*Chapter Two is "Black and White and Read All Over: Good and Evil in Bestselling Adventure Novels and Political Nonfiction." Heath and Adams discussed authors such as John Grisham, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling, and how the concepts of good and evil were treated in such popular novels. There was a large section about Harry Potter (one of my favorites!). The second half of the chapter detailed various political books that have made the top sales lists in recent years.
*Chapter Three is called "Hopefully Ever After: Love, Romance, and Relationships." As you could guess, this chapter was all about relationships and romance, especially romance novels. Americans have been very interested in receiving advice from people such as John Gray, Dr. Laura, and Dr. Phil. We also buy tons and tons and tons of romance fiction (guilty!)---romance novels "comprised over half (54.9%) of all popular paperback fiction sold in North America---and almost forty percent of all popular fiction sold" (116).
*Chapter Four is titled "Soul Train: Religion and Spirituality." This chapter is split between traditional Christian and "New Age" books. Heath and Adams wrote that all the books in this chapter share "three fundamental conclusions:
-Everything in life has meaning; there are no accidents.
-Love is the answer.
-What other gurus say is almost always wrong" (175).
These books include The Prayer of Jabez, The Purpose Driven Life, Conversations With God, and The Celestine Prophecy, plus the Left Behind series. Apparently many of us are seeking spiritual guidance.
*Chapter Five is "Reading for Redemption: Trials and Triumphs in Literary Fiction and Nonfiction." The books in this chapter, such as Cold Mountain, The Kite Runner, Into Thin Air, and The Nanny Diaries give readers the opportunity to step in to another person's life and read about their hardships and victories. We are looking for answers to life's difficulties and hope to learn from others' mistakes.
*Chapter Six is called "Deciphering 'Da Code': Conclusions." This final chapter spent a lot of time on The Da Vince Code, but also served as the conclusion.

Heath and Adams are concerned that we are reaching for books that provide quick answers and easy fixes, rather than taking the time to delve deeply, to think, to reflect. They advocate reading points-of-view other than those we already hold. They believe there ought to be a louder cry "raised for a renewed emphasis on the kinds of humanistic education that can strengthen our country's democratic soul. Good reading evokes a kind of transformation, and that, ultimately, is what any good education should do too. The study of . . . literature . . . sharpens (and changes) minds, opens hearts, emboldens souls. A literary immersion in different worlds and powerful ideas---whether through fiction or nonfiction---is unsettling, challenging, inspirational and healthily subversive" (270-271). Most of all, we need to continue reading and exploring.

Any bibliophile would find Why We Read What We Read a book worth reading. I thought it was quite interesting to come across books and authors I recognized and/or loved, and also to see how many books I had never heard of that had made the bestsellers lists.

Heath and Adams did a remarkable job reading, categorizing, and comparing so many books. Scattered through out the pages were little tidbits that caught their attention or funny items that were sort of editorial comments on themes. These were always interesting and amusing to read. The book was also quite funny to read, as Heath and Adams have a great sense of humor. I especially enjoyed the Harry Potter and literary jokes (One of my favorites, about HP and the Atkins Diet---"Only Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone outsold [the New Diet Revolution] over that period, and we think that's at least in part because the young magician became a secret hero to the low-carbers. Sad, gaunt little Harry was locked in a closet most of his life by his evil relatives and thereby deprived of many of the fruits, cereals, breads . . ." (27).)

My only major dislike of Why We Read What We Read was Heath and Adams' assessment of political books. They have a very obvious bias toward liberal authors. The majority of the political section was spent criticizing conservative authors as unthinking, mean, and narrow-minded. The liberal authors, in contrast, wrote the equivalent of "schoolyard taunts" (104) and books that were often funny. Now, I am a Conservative and I admit that I am biased towards Conservative authors, but I know that those liberal authors mentioned in this book are not all sweetness and light, and nor do they just call conservatives "mean" and "bratty!" I would have prefered Heath and Adams write a more accurate and balanced section on political books. Even the section on "non-partisan" political books contains authors that I wouldn't consider non-partisan, plus digs at others I would consider non-partisan.

I do agree with Heath and Adams that we all need to read more books and read books that we do not necessarily agree with. By doing that, we widen our points of view, learn new information, and either expand or reaffirm our beliefs. It is important to do these things and to be well-read individuals.

The appendix contains about 50 pages of best seller lists, which would be the perfect place to find new books to read. I am glad the authors included the lists because it is interesting to see which books I am familiar with and expected to see and which books I have never heard of and am surprised to see.

I recommend Why We Read What We Read for anyone particularly interested in books . . . or anyone not really interested in books. As I wrote, we can all find something new and challenging to read. This book provides an excellent starting place.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8b287078) out of 5 stars Outstanding Review of What Bestsellers Are Doing to Us 19 Sept. 2007
By William R. Drew Jr. - Published on
Format: Paperback
"Why We Read What We Read" (WWRWWR) is a fun-spirited, charming, witty look at bestsellers of the last sixteen years, as tallied by Publishers Weekly (PW). The book even provides a handy, comprehensive Appendix for each year from 2006 back through 1991, listing PW's top 15 Bestsellers for each year in four categories: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Trade Paperbacks, and Mass-Market Paperbacks. Further, WWRWWR tacks on USA Today's list of Top 100 Books, 1993-2003.
Authors Lisa Adams and John Heath give, at times, hilarious insight into the specific bestselling books they discuss, such as when they passingly mention The Da Vinci Code in their first chapter: "It's speedy, simple, full of secrets. It drop-kicks its characters into a hair-raising search for truth of worldwide, if not otherworldly, significance. It's not only about sex and religion, but about sex IN religion. And, come on, it has a killer albino." And that's just the appetizer, because they provide a funny, fascinating, full dissection of "Da Code" in their final chapter---where, on a more general level, they also provide heavier insights about American reading habits: "But we seem to need a guru, an expert, to steer us ahead. . . . Now we seem to turn to popular books for the same easy resolution of life's tensions and ambiguities. . . .So many of them [bestsellers] are written not to explore issues, as our timeless texts were, but to encourage readers to look to them [bestselling books]for--and expect nothing more than--straightforward answers and reassurance. Our reading [of bestsellers] too often simplifies, rather than enriches; . . . answers, rather than questions; . . . accuses, rather than seeks to understand."
Lisa and John also discuss "our diminishing ability to read well" in a thoughtful, easy-going way that E. D. Hirsch, Jr., (author of bestselling Cultural Literacy [2002] and The Knowledge Deficit [2006], and the founder of Core Knowledge Foundation) would cheer.
WWRWWR is full of insight and entertainment, a veritable cornucopia of "instruction and delight," as the NeoClassicists would say.
Best book I've ever read on bestsellers.
It ought to become a bestseller itself--and for all the right reasons!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8b502ee8) out of 5 stars An ambitiously successful analysis of the American Psyche 18 Nov. 2013
By John T. T. Intera - Published on
Format: Paperback
I just finished the book, Why We Read What We Read. It is the fourth book I’ve read in the past year or so on the publishing industry and reading culture in England and North America. (The others were Merchants of Culture, The Late Age of Print, and The Times of Their Lives). All of these books are ambitious, but Lisa Adams and John Heath’s effort is perhaps the most ambitious of all. Their goal is to get an inside read on the psyche of mainstream America. To accomplish this they waded through nearly 200 of the books that appeared on the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller lists from the years 1995-2005. It was a particularly fertile period from which to draw a sample: it saw the rise of Harry Potter, the birth and death of The Oprah Book Club, and the apotheosis of Dan Brown. The book is organized by genre: self-help, adventure novels, political non-fiction, romance, religion & spirituality, and literary fiction (e.g. The Kite Runner). The Da Vinci Code gets a chapter all its own. What came through all that reading is a culture that is hooked on quick fixes and simplistic answers to thorny problems. One that would rather take the advice of a huckster than think for itself. Even so, Adams and Heath are not complete scourges or prophets of doom. For example, they give a stiff defense of Oprah’s book club (she got people reading, after all, and there are even one or two enduring masterpieces on her list.) Adams and Heath also remind us where Oprah may have went wrong (it wasn’t that her books were too easy or two girly, but that she and her audience read not for reading’s sake but to gather insights into their own biographies). In their conclusion, Adams and Heath pine for a culture where deeper, more complex, and realistic books take a front row to the current fare saying, “If we can wean ourselves from the destructive and useless quest for easy answers, devoting ourselves instead to a genuine search for truth in all its complexity, we can change the substance of these [bestseller] lists.” True! Nevertheless, what Adams and Heath fail to take on board is that the success of authors like Dan Brown funds the professional publication of dozens of serious and experimental novels at big publishing houses--even poetry. To paraphrase the futurist, Kingsley L. Dennis, “Change always comes from the margins, not from the center.”
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8b287300) out of 5 stars On America's Reading Habits 18 Mar. 2008
By Dennis DeWilde - Published on
Format: Paperback
Finding the answer to, "Why and What We Read?" is not the reason to read this entertaining journey thru the lists of contemporary bestsellers - that answer is easy, we like stories that simplify things which confusion us and/or reading that uplifts thru an infusion of hope and/or certainty. Rather, you will want to read this book for Adam's and Heath's humorous perspectives and Cliff Notes like reviews that simplify and uplift as they dissect various tomes we have made bestsellers.

More than knowing what made the bestseller's list with in each of the categories the authors segregated the lists into, what I found most enjoyable was the authors' take (their simplifications for me, I guess) on the various books. I thought the authors were good when providing their "opinions" as in, why the various diet books did well; but they were at their best when their "opinions" were used to review a book such as Spencer Johnson's, "Who Moved My Cheese?" It was these 'Cliff Notes' versions of several bestselling books, sprinkled with ample opinions, which were most enjoyable and down right entertaining. Quite frankly, I would rush to buy a book devoted entirely to the authors' satirical reviews of current bestsellers.

Dennis DeWilde, author of "The Performance Connection"
HASH(0x8b287540) out of 5 stars Apologists for Literature 17 Oct. 2008
By Heidi Logothetti - Published on
Format: Paperback
Disclosure: I am friends with the authors. Neither of the authors has solicited my opinion of this work. I have not been offered, and will not receive, any compensation (financial or otherwise) for posting this review, except for the valuable opportunity to air my opinions.


This book is not a scientific survey of the American public's reading habits for the years 1990-2006. I suppose the introduction might sucker you into thinking that the book is a sociological writeup--if you're not particularly acute, and somehow manage to miss the authors' powerful current of sarcasm--but in fact the very subtitle of the work gives the game away. Heath and Adams are not disinterested scientists (doubtful if such mythical beings exist), but propagandists in the cause of intellectual curiosity, understanding, and humanism. The aforementioned sarcasm is characteristic of the authors, but it is also a tool used to probe popular books and genres, and to engage in a non-sappy fashion the interest of the reader in a weighty topic. Pondering why it is that so many "literary" works of fiction are read predominately by women, the authors give the following:

"Certain novels are obviously exclusionary, such as The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood...or The Red Tent....(And in fact we would advise most anyone to avoid "sisterhoods" of all kinds and any use of the word "red" that might refer to stained underpants.) But most literary bestsellers do not contain scrapbooks, excessive weeping, or menstrual tents." (P. 250)

You may have winced if you are fond of the abovementioned books, but this passage is a funny one which leads into a thought-provoking rumination on theme and gender. It is fairly representative of the larger work. The final conclusion, that reading material that challenges us "can still provide our best shot at a transformative experience, altering our opinions and enlarging our sensitivities" (p. 276), rings true.
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