Monday, 18 November 2013

The trouble with books

Friends of mine (hi, Rob and Joanne) own a bookstore in Mexico, and spend the winter selling English language books to tourists escaping the winter cold. They tell me that, industry wide, physical book sales are slowing, driven in part by e-readers and in part by fewer people buying books.

I believe them; they're in the business. On Maui, there are no more bookstores at all (the best you can do is buy a trade paperback from a minuscule selection in a drugstore or grocery store). But what I find interesting is that people still want to read.

People on vacation in Maui seem to do one of two things: sit at the beach and read, or sit at the pool and read. I read 5 books while on Maui this year; Karen read 6. That's 4 more books than I've read this year, and probably matches what Karen has read. I have the time to read, but don't. I would like to read more, but don't.

To me the trouble with books is pretty simple: a bewilderingly, mind-boggling, brain-numbing plethora of books to pick from, and no way to find something I would like to read. I walk into a library and leave empty handed, because I don't know how to pick from the 54,000 books in our local library. So I take a book off my bookshelf and read it again (Karen does this all the time, and has books she reads every year). I have read nothing new in probably 2 years.

With movies -- and there's a lot of those, too -- I can pick a movie sight unseen based on the reviews of the critics whom I trust and agree with. Such a resource does not exist for books (that I am aware of). I am a loyal reader of Esquire magazine, and they publish on a regular basis short write-ups of books that men should be reading. I read every write-up, and not a single book in the 25 years of reading Esquire's lists and reviews has appealed to me. Esquire also publishes a summer fiction issue, featuring their version of the best short story authors writing the best short stories. I try to read them, and normally can't even finish them; they are uninteresting and unappealing to me, though I imagine others like them.

I have tried sticking with genres I like, based on authors I like. I own all the Frederick Forsyth books (I liked his earlier stuff more than his more recent stuff; he's 75 and who knows how much more he'll be writing). But reading recommendations of "authors like Forsyth" have resulted in me tossing more books after struggling to even finish the second chapter. I liked Tom Clancy's early work; his later stuff was formulaic, ultra boring, unoriginal and written to be a movie script (or worse, ghost written to be a movie script). He spawned a whole spate of techno-thriller copycats; I tried a lot of them, and virtually every one landed in the dumpster. I did like Dale Brown's FLIGHT OF THE OLD DOG, but every book of his after that was the same book as the first. I loved Larry Bond's VORTEX, but nothing he wrote after that was worth reading. I liked the HARRY POTTER series, but "authors like" J.K. Rowling got me nowhere.

I've had more success with non-fiction, but end up reading different authors writing about the exact same things (science, origins of the universe, physics, investing, Apple, space, heck, even card tricks) and they say the exact same things. 

Every week, Amazon sends me a recommended reading list. I've probably been on that mailing list for 5 years, and not one book has appealed to me. I have randomly bought books to take with me on vacation, and struggled with awful writing, stupid stories, asinine characters and unbelievable plots.

I am 100% certain that somewhere in that 54,000 titles in my local library, or the 1,500,000 titles carried by Amazon, are more than a few books I would love to read. I just don't know how to find them. And perhaps Rob and Joanne's problem, and the industry's problem, is that they have fallen into the trap of believing "more is better" -- when for me at least, more is not better. I've read that:

  • Google estimates 129,000,000 different book titles have been published in history;
  • Every year, 347,000 new titles are published in the US alone, and more are done in other English speaking countries;
  • There are 50,000 book publishers in the US alone who issue at least one title per year
Fifty thousand people giving me 347,000 more choices each year doesn't make it more likely that I will find books to read. I think it makes it less likely. But giving me a minuscule selection of trade paperbacks in a grocery store isn't the answer either.

And so I wait the get Chris Hadfield's book for Christmas, but doubt I will read any other new book any time soon.

1 comment:

stephen r said...

Patrick O'Brian - read 2 of his books and you'll be hooked. Don't be fooled by the mediocre movie "Master and Commander". Keith Richards said they are the best books he has ever read. Not sure how many books he has read though.