But Is It Reading?


Our Daily Correspondent

Photo: Herman Turnip. Via Flickr.

Yesterday morning, the New York Times reported that the prolific James Patterson is starting a new venture: a series of exciting, novella-length books called BookShots. Says the story:

Mr. Patterson said the books would be aimed at readers who might not want to invest their time in a 300- or 400-page novel. And he hopes they might even appeal to people who do not normally read at all. If it works, it could open up a big new market: According to a Pew Research Center survey released last fall, 27 percent of American adults said they had not read a book in the past year.

“You can race through these—they’re like reading movies,” he said during a recent interview in New York. “It gives people some alternative ways to read.” 

In other words, rather than some elaborate cocktail carefully crafted by a mixologist, these will be shots—fast, easy, effective, relatively cheap. Fun and festive. Or a good way to get sloppy and sick, depending on how you think about it. It seems like a really smart idea, and if nothing else a boon to Mr. Patterson’s millions of readers, who—even at his famous pace—have to wait a few months between new titles. BookShots, written or selected by Patterson, will come out at a rate of two to four a month. And if it gets new people reading, even better.

It’s easy for snobs to dismiss mass-market paperbacks, and easy for their readers to become defensive. But is this form of reading the same thing as sustained reading? Does one lead to the other? Or is it more akin to fine dining versus everyday food—a time luxury not many people can afford, and so one for which they don’t develop a taste? 

I speak as someone who goes through phases of reading what might ungenerously be called “trashy”—series YA, fifties teen novels, thrillers. I’m talking here about books that are unambiguously plot driven, with an emphasis on characters’ wish fulfillment and an ending that, even with twists, is fairly predictable. I love it; in these modes I devour books. But the process is different from more “serious” reading—the hit of pleasure and satisfaction is more immediate, and it makes it much harder to go back to a more challenging book. Going back and forth between the two styles of reading—for me, at least—is hard. In fact, I don’t consider them the same process, mentally or emotionally. 

I recently did a trial of one of those sites that sends little samples of toiletries and cosmetics every month. I was excited to receive my little box, and maybe find treasure. And then I opened it and thought, Oh. There were things I didn’t need and didn’t particularly want, in very small vials. I don’t know what I had expected. But then I thought of the comfort of knowing something, something new and very mildly surprising, was coming. And I remembered the moment when it arrived and I thought there might be something wonderful here. And I must confess, for a moment, my finger hovered over the SUBSCRIBE button. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.