I was out for dinner with a friend and her sister recently, and I mentioned that I had finally read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to read that,” said friend’s sister. “I keep seeing it at WalMart.”
“I know! It’s everywhere!” I replied, at this point still enjoying the conversation.
“Well, I just don’t buy books until they’re in the WalMart,” she commented. “Once they’re there, I just know they’re good.”
After briefly choking on my tongue, I asked her to explain. Her theory, which in fairness does make some sense, was that WalMart only carries the most popular books, so once they’re there, they’ve essentially been pre-screened by the public. And okay, that makes a good degree of sense. But in a market where so much great new fiction doesn’t really have a chance to break out, it made me worried about how people choose what to read.
Have we created a system in which only books pre-ordained to bestsellerdom even have a chance? Is there such a thing as a word of mouth bestseller anymore?
It reminds me of when Jonathan Franzen turned down the Oprah book club back in 2001 and made comments alluding to his own discomfort that we trust so few people to tell us what to read and are so willing to jump on board with whatever they point us to. For me, so much of the thrill is in finding something unexpected or something no one else has talked to me about so I can go in with no expectations.
That brings me back to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which I loved more than most folks I know who have read or tried to read it and which does seem like an honest to goodness word of mouth bestseller. It did get a huge push from its publisher, but as folks have dived in and the rest of the trilogy came out, it has expanded hugely. So the chance for books to break out is there, but…I’m still concerned about the nature of big box retail and its effect on book buying habits.
What about you guys? Do you prefer books you know other people love, or would you rather uncover an unexpected gem? And how do you decide what to read?
I won’t pretend I’m uninfluenced by buzz. I just bought Justin Cronin’s doorstop The Passage this weekend because I’ve heard so many great things. But then I started something else…