May 7, 2012

On the meaningfulness of books bought, but not read

There's a moment, late in the documentary Derrida, where the documentarian is with Derrida in Derrida's library, and asks, "Have you read all these" books?

No, he hasn't read all these.

"But you've read most of them?"

"No, no" Derrida says. "I've read three of four of them. But I read those four very well."

It's a joke, and a joke about Derrida and Derridian reading, but seriously, who has read all the books they own?

Even if one does, eventually, read all the books one owns -- itself a dubious proposition -- there's a delay, a lag. There's no easy, simple link between buying a book and reading it. There's no simple formula by which one could predict readership based solely on sales.

If this seems obvious, it should. Yet, without fail, cultural critics act as though there's no difference between book purchase and book reading, as if measuring the one were measuring the other. As if the one always and everywhere meant the other. As if there were a simple relationship between the two acts, and the only reason anyone ever bought a book was to read it, the purchase a promise always made good.

Somehow, this needs to be broken.

There has to be a way to talk about book purchases as culturally meaningful and yet distinct from and different from acts of reading.
The most recent example of what I'm finding a persistent problem, a graph of the "Top 10 Most Read Books in the World":

 


The small print reads: "Based on the number of books printed and sold in the last 50 years." And notes: "Some titles may have had more copies printed than some of these books, but a vast number of those books were not sold, so we'll assume that they did not get read."

I appreciate the acknowledgement that there's no consistent correlation between print runs and readership, but while we're noting complications, why stop there?

A number of these books are sold quite frequently on secondary markets. The Da Vinci Code, Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Rings and The Diary of Anne Frank can all be found in almost every used bookstore (not to mention lending libraries). The graph doesn't actually cite it's source for sales statistics, but it's unlikely the calculation includes used bookstores. Right now, on Amazon, the nice paperback edition of the third volume of Tolkien's popular trilogy is for sale, new, by 39 booksellers. Used versions are available from an additional 66 sellers, and there are also 5 "collectable" versions. One could also buy one of the 6 available with school library binding, and all of those are used, and there are a whopping 1,1101 used copies of the mass market edition, with the movie-cover tie-in. Then there is also the audio book (17 new, 29 used) and the e-book version.

Some plausible speculations:
  • Some people buy used copies of this book. 
  • Some people buy more than one copy of this book. 
  • Some people have bought this book, but not read it. 
  • Some people have read this book more than once. 
  • Some copies of this book have been read more than once.
  • Some people have read this book without buying it. 
It seems likely, with the Tolkien, that the number of people who've read it is greater than the number of copies sold. It's difficult to actually know that that's the case, or to find a statistic somewhere that supports it, but a pretty good argument based on observations of reading and anecdotal evidence can be made.

Thus, while the number, 103 million copies printed and sold in the last 50 years, is not a meaningless number, it doesn't actually tell us what the graph above claims it tells us. The simple transition from "sold" to "read" is just too simple.

It's possible, of course, for cultural critics to just say "lots have been sold, so this is a culturally important book," and then go on to make the point they were going to make. Possible, and fair enough. It's worth noting, though, that there's a separate and distinct cultural act going on here in the purchases. The sales have meaning entirely apart from reading, a meaning which will not be easily deduced from close reading the text, since the act is prior to and not necessarily connected to any actual reading.

Buying books needs to be thought of independently. Purchases are significant and culturally meaningful quite apart from textual interpretations, or accounts of how readers read. Before readers are readers, they're buyers -- books involve two different sorts of "consumption" -- and sometimes they're buyers without being readers all.

With several other titles on this list, there's a different problem, which maybe demonstrates the point about the meaningfulness of bought-but-unread books even more. Some significant portion of the purchases are likely gifts. The Bible, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and Paul Choelho's The Alchemist are all frequently bought to be given away. I, personally, have two copies of Choelho's book, neither of which I've read, both of which were given to me by people who don't know me particularly well. The printing history of the so-called "Little Red Book" is a bit convoluted -- the first Chinese edition was published simultaneously in multiple locations for distribution reasons, they were not marked with publication data, making records somewhat sketchy, and untold millions (?) of copies were destroyed by Communist authorities after Mao died -- but the book was distributed free of charge in many places, in China, in countries where there were revolutions, and in Western nations as well. Whether all the people who got a copy read that copy would be impossible to say. Maybe that's the case, but how could we know?

There's really no way to ask, as the documentarian in Derrida's library asked, "have you all read all these?"

What we can know, though, was these books served a purpose without ever being read: they have and have fulfilled a cultural function, without a single cover cracked.

The case of the Bible gets at this: In America, at least, a very large portion of the market for Bibles is for people who already have Bibles. A statistic commonly cited is that 90 percent of American homes have Bibles, and the average family owns 3.Yet, Bibles are perennial best sellers in America, and a the mainstay of many Christian publishers. If people only purchased Bibles to read, the market would have been long since saturated. Instead, more and new copies are printed and sold. In 2010, Zondervan's catalog of Bibles ran 223 pages. In 2009, Christian publishers sold 20 million copies of the Bible for an estimated $500, and the American Bible Society gave away an additional 5 million Bibles. This was only possible because the Bibles were being sold to people who already had Bibles.

This is only possible because reading the book and buying it have been/can be decoupled.

People buy Bibles as presents. People buy specialty Bibles. People buy Bibles to display. And people buy Bibles to buy Bibles.

Thinking about purchases as proxy statistics for readings can only lead to misconceptions and misunderstandings or the cultural role of the holy book. People do read the Bible, of course, in many ways, in many contexts, and for a variety of reasons. Those readings are certainly deserving of investigation. Bible sales, though, are different than that, and ought to be thought about separately. If one asks why $500 million Bibles were bought in the middle of an economic recession, one is not asking a question about reading. The Bible, rather, needs to be thought of not as a text, but as an object, a semiotically significant cultural totem.

Hypotheses explaining Bible purchases (where the Bible is not necessarily to be read):
  • People buy Bibles in order to be seen as the kind of people who have Bibles.
  • People buy Bibles to mark solemn occasions (alternatively, to make occasions solemn in a certain way).
  • People buy Bibles because they're acceptable/expected gifts (with optional $20 bookmark).
  • People buy Bibles as acts of self-improvement (comparable to the spike in gym memberships at the beginning of every year).
  • People buy Bibles as acts of encouragement/other-improvement.
  • People buy Bibles as protective lucky charm gifts (as in the case with the Bible given to a young person leaving home).
  • People buy Bibles because there are situations where it feels wrong not to buy a Bible (like a low level version of Mel Gibson's compulsive purchase of Catcher in the Rye in Conspiracy Theory).
To talk about the Bible in America, one would have to look at many things, from how the language of the King James Version has influenced and shaped the language of American literature to fights over translation, interpretation, and interpretive communities. One could profitably look at historical moments where divisive issues where understood as divergent Bible readings, and moments where belief in the importance of the Bible brought otherwise divided groups together. One of the things that would also have to be considered in a really complete account, though, is the ways in which the Bible has functioned and been significant and meaningful, and had a cultural role, in this other way, where they're better thought of as objects, not texts.

As with the Bible, so with every other book. Bestsellers seem to be especially an issue here. The too simple link between buying a book and reading it has to be broken if one wants to avoid simply misconstruing the book-buying data, making up conclusions that miss a lot of what's going on, as the old advertisements used to say, "everywhere books are sold."