A recent article by Shane Parrish in The Week posed this intriguing argument: that serious readers should avoid bestselling books. The reason being that most bestsellers are forgotten in a few years, and offer minimal help educating us on long-term issues. They also encourage us to think like the masses, potentially smothering our creativity.
I have mixed feelings about his argument. On the one hand, I strongly believe that people should read for pleasure as much as for education. If reading is a chore, it can take on a negative association and feel like one more thing on our endless to-do lists. There’s a great deal of joy to be found in reading what others are reading. A good book can be the seed of meaningful conversation; the kind of conversation that builds relationships and brings people together. It can also help us understand multiple viewpoints and know each other in a way that just living daily life along side someone doesn’t always reveal.
In favor of Parrish’s argument is my dread for those who read only to announce their reading list to others. I agree that reading should be an internal pursuit. And people are different. My father, for instance, reads the most obscure books on religious history and philosophy. Often he can’t even find the titles he wants to read because they are so obscure they go out of print sooner rather than later. I read plenty of bestsellers, but you can also find my nose in a ballet book or an advanced copy of a first novel that someone I know in publishing is excited about. Those often don’t become bestsellers, but some, like The Weight of Blood (which I discussed here awhile back) register on my list of recommendations for years.
Parrish agrees that reading what others are reading feels good, but he claims that’s a terrible way to build knowledge, especially since many hits are a flash in the pan. I don’t agree. There are plenty of bestsellers that impart meaningful knowledge that endures. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for instant, is a spectacular history lesson about crucial moments in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. And how about What To Expect When You’re Expecting? I wouldn’t pass on Goodnight Moon just because others are reading it. No to The Joy of Sex? The Joy of Cooking?
I’ll just modify the argument to “read whatever you want, bestseller or not.” Articles suggesting what to read are always welcome and will reach their intended audience even if the suggestions aren’t for everyone. But articles telling people what not to read? Not my cup of tea. Read for education; yes. Read for conversation pieces; yes. Read for pleasure; yes. Read to pass time; yes.
If it interests you, read it.