Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy, and mutual valuing.
– Rollo May
Earlier today, I read an article at The Week entitled “Why you should avoid best-selling books” and felt my curiosity piqued. After all, I’m your typical underdog fan; I’m always down to see a little love for unsung heroes, diamonds in the rough, and other clichés you know you enjoy.
However, the article’s focus seemed to be less about celebrating hidden treasures of the literary world and more about looking down on readers who pick their titles from the bestseller’s list. The gist of the article is that people who only read what everyone else is reading are only able to think what everyone else is thinking, thus hindering their own ability to grow artistically and intellectually.
That’s just silly.
There’s nothing wrong with having a to-read list that’s made up entirely of bestsellers, if that’s what the reader enjoys. Bestsellers have a lot of benefits, both on the level of the individual reader and that of the reading community.
In today’s social-media-driven lifestyle, the reading world has rallied. Book blogs make up a huge chunk of the blogosphere, and the digital writing community is also flourishing, particularly as independent publishing becomes more accessible. Authors communicate with their fans via tweets and blogs/vlogs; writers and readers have never been more accessible. Readers can connect through sites like Goodreads or in the comments sections of websites such as Barnes & Noble or Amazon. Recommendations, book sharing, and community ties build through social media.
Now, the connection between social media and the bestseller’s list in this post is thus: while that social media/book community thrives, it often exists only when people seek it out. Bibliophiles find their favorite book-related hashtags or blog tags and discover new reading topics or make new connections every day. Not every reader is so passionate about seeking the social aspect of literature.
For many folks who choose reading less often than other activities in their spare time, the social benefits of reading don’t always present themselves. At least, not digitally. The bestseller’s list is the social connection of the offline reading community. Championed by other buying readers, the titles on the bestseller’s list represent stories that others have experienced and enjoyed.
Maybe they’re not always the most intellectual of titles, and maybe they don’t always deserve the praise we feel other titles do. However, bestselling books have struck a chord with the reading community.
By word of mouth, social media, lending books to friends, and leaving positive reviews and ratings on bookselling websites, the active reading community is the ultimate force behind book success. They build the buzz that gets people buying. When sales numbers go up, books find themselves prominently displayed in bookstores and on bookseller homepages. They’re often the first titles new readers spy—and with the support of thousands of other readers behind them. When people want to read but aren’t sure what to read, they look to others for guidance—in this case, maybe without even realizing it.
As new readers pick up their copies of bestsellers, there is an unspoken promise that other people in the world will care. Others have shared the experience of reading this book, and bringing it up in casual conversation will likely beget recognition and an opportunity to communicate further, to exchange ideas and feelings. The social benefits of reading a bestseller are understood. Even if the thought isn’t foremost in a reader’s mind, with every page he or she turns, that reader is experiencing something to which others can relate.
Reading is often thought of as a solitary hobby, one person and a book. However, anyone who’s asked a group if they’ve read such-and-such and received an enthusiastic response knows how untrue this is. Whether classics that have been read for generations or the newest titles on the bestseller’s list, stories and characters will always inspire thought and imagination—and, importantly, book conversation and community.
As I said in the beginning of this article, I enjoy a good underdog. Bestsellers aren’t generally thought of as underdogs, but think about how many members of the reading community blow them off, as in the initial article that inspired this post. Bestsellers invite readers who read a dozen books a year and a dozen books a month and provide common ground to foster new connections, new exchanges of thought—and, undoubtedly, new recommendations of off-the-bestseller-list titles.
Don’t look down on books just for being bestsellers, and definitely don’t look down on the readers who enjoy them. What matters most in the world of books is reading what makes us happy, and many people develop a true love of books because so-and-so recommended such-and-such on the bestseller’s list. Maybe we don’t always like the titles people pick, but we can all appreciate that millions and millions of books exist so that there’s something to appeal to every reader.
Who knows? Maybe the next book you love will be a bestseller, too.