We Have Hella Psycho-Baggage About How We Read Books

Never did I imagine that researching how and why people read books–really read them—would be so hard. Even finding books about the topic based on observation and not theory is tough.

It’s because we all have to peel away so many layers of psychological baggage of how we read books.

First, I have to take out my own trash—that is, I need to face the role book-reading plays in my life. If, over the past few years, I hadn’t increased my self-awareness of how I feel about books and reading, I would miss so much. I’m probably still missing a lot because of my own hangups about books and reading, so that’s a work-in-progress.

Then there’s everyone else.

Even explaining what kind of book I’m looking for is hard. Far harder than any other book recommendations I’ve solicited in the past. When people hear ‘reading’ and ‘books’ they recommend to me things like The Library Book by Susan Orlean just because it’s a famous book about a book. Never mind that it has nothing to with questions such as ‘how do people pick which books to read among the millions of books out there’ or ‘which books do people buy but not read?’ or ‘what types of books are people more likely to DNF?’ (It’s a book about a library which caught on fire). I even got a recommendation for a book about etymology. ‘WTF does etymology have to do with why readers behave the way they do??!!’ I thought. I guess English-language readers might be more likely to finish books with a higher proportion of words of Germanic origin than books with a high proportion of words with Greek origin, but come on. A thousand rabbit holes are equally relevant. Then the same person recommended looking at the Great Courses. Dude, I’m not looking for a course on how to be a better reader, or a guide to which books I ‘should’ read. I want to know how readers behave in the real world.

We avoid the question of how readers really behave because we don’t like the answers.

We have three reading selves: the social reading self, the aspirational reading self, and our real reading self.

The social self is how we present our reading habits to others. Are the books you (don’t) tell others you’ve read in 100% alignment with the books you actually read? Ha ha, nope. Not for me, and not for you.

As a teenager, I DNF’d Pride and Prejudice twice and devoured The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. Ever since, I’ve told many people that Pride and Prejudice is too boring for me and that The Mysteries of Udolpho is awesome. Why do I want to tell others this? Somehow, it matches the way I want others to see me. It’s one thing to not be a Jane Austen fan, it’s another thing to be so proud of Not Liking Jane Austen that I tell a bunch of people. If I were ashamed instead of proud, I’d tell nobody.

(Those books I am ashamed of DNF’ing? I’m not disclosing the titles, for obvious reasons.)

This is also true: I like Northanger Abbey and dislike Radcliffe’s The Italian. So I’m neither a Jane Austen anti-fan nor a total Ann Radcliffe fan. Yet I haven’t told nearly as many people about this. I want people to know me as a member of Team Radcliffe, not Team Austen.

Why I want to be known as a member of Team Radcliffe is beside the point, it’s just an example of the kind of baggage I need to notice so that it won’t distort my understanding of how other people read.

Then there are our aspirational reading selves—the readers we wish we were. The books we wish we have already read, or books we read but wish we formed different feelings about. I wanted to like The Italian, I just didn’t. Heck, the first time I tried to read Pride and Prejudice, I wanted to like it too because I knew many Jane Austen fans and I wanted to join them. That’s why I tried Pride and Prejudice a second time. Didn’t work. So I changed my aspiration. But there are still many books I wish I’ve already read but haven’t, as well as many books I wished I liked but didn’t.

Then there are the books we really read, or not read.

This is why ‘book lovers’ made such a vicious backlash to Marie Kondo’s advice to keep only books which ‘spark joy.’ To sense whether a book makes us feel tokimeku, we have to face the gap because our reading aspirations and our real reading.

Doing it for oneself is hard enough. Getting through other people’s layered feelings about reading to learn how they really read is harder.

How can you learn how other people really read despite the social incentives to distort what they read? Jellybooks tracks how people read eBooks, and their findings are fascinating. Amazon and other eBook retailers do it too, but they don’t publish their findings. Book historians do it by examining which pages are still in pristine shape, even centuries later, and which pages are worn-out from many re-reads. Anne Bogel at Modern Mrs. Darcy (yes, it’s ironic that I recommend a blog/podcast with that title) has a different method: she’s nonjudgmental when she interviews bookworms and goes out of her way to make them feel comfortable discussing their real reading habits, even if it doesn’t match their aspirations. That emotional safety lets bookworms open up about how they really read.

Oddly, the difficulty of researching this topic inspires me to do more research.

7 thoughts on “We Have Hella Psycho-Baggage About How We Read Books

  1. I don’t know, I’m pretty comfortable with my reading habits and opinions, so I can’t relate to this idea of separate reading selves. If I like a book that’s underrated, then I’ll tell people it’s underrated. If I dislike a book that’s popular, I’m fine explaining why I didn’t think it was any good – or at least why I personally didn’t enjoy it (some books are good, but not enjoyable). If I’d be ashamed of having read a book, I’m probably not interested in reading it.

    The only exceptions might be that I don’t discuss stories with queer protagonists as much with straight people, but that’s more to do with knowing they usually prefer stories with straight protagonists.

    • Thanks for commenting. I’ve received a similar comment from someone else privately.

      Some people are really upfront about what they read, and you’re one of them. But research shows that many people aren’t.

  2. Huh. Apparently, I’m an outlier, at least since I’ve started to do a yearly “readings” blogpost. I try to list everything that counts as a book (i.e. novels, novellas, anthologies, longer non-fiction), I tell people when I didn’t finish reading (and try to analyse why), and I even make references to my habit of binging fanfiction when down. I’m also linking to my fanfic-presences, so people know what odd/cheesy/whaterever stuff I like(d) through my “faves”-list. I’ve long decided to not be ashamed for my slashy side.
    Apart from that: I adore NK Jemisin’s work, and I dislike Lovecraft intensely, even though I wanted to like the grandmaster of tentacle priests.

    • The mere fact that you record every book you read, including the DNFs, makes you an outlier (at least according to Anne Bogel, that’s actually what the essay “I’d Rather Be Reading” in the book named after the essay is about, she’d rather be reading than recording statistics about her reading).

      I’ve had mixed experiences with NK Jemisin (liked some novels, DNF’d others). Most of Lovecraft bores me. The only exception is “The Mountains of Mourning” which I like. Someone who has read all of Lovecraft told me that’s the one story where he expresses empathy for the for the monsters and considers that they may not necessarily be evil (which might be why that’s the one Lovecraft story I enjoyed).

  3. Hmm interesting. I’d love for there to be more research on this and you understand more of the topic.

    I do find myself somewhat ashamed of sharing what audiobooks are in my audible library with people I only know from like the local asexual & aromantic meetup group, because the ratio of them that are productivity self-help or helping people with traumatic childhoods is overly high and because I worry people will judge me for being so interested in a certain style of self-help book or something, even i probably wouldn’t be ashamed in other social circles like my ADHD group coaching circles. The fact that i still have so much shame around things like that is something I should face and unpack though, just like the fact that I have so much shame sometimes around the fictional tv shows that I’m most attached to and loved the most and it’s important to me that people not judge others who love those shows, because that’s judging me… And yet it’s often safer not to even mention enjoying a tv series that might lead people to make all sorts of negative assumptions about who i am as a person.

    I know television is a different thing than reading books but it feels weirdly similar to me.

    • Yeah, that seems extremely similar.

      That research finding which shows that the book covers readers favor for themselves are different from the covers they favor for recommending to others shows that many readers are… selective about what they share with others about their reading habits.

  4. Pingback: Why I Search Under the Streetlight—and Why That’s Okay | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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