The Silent Majority Is Reading

The New York Times ran this piece Sunday about the pretentiousness of buying something like Herodotus for someone for Christmas. Let’s read along and translate it, shall we? Feel free to add your own translations in the comments.

YOU would have to crack open “The Landmark Herodotus” and get as far as Page 41 to discover this oo-la-la piece of a lecture given by the sage Sandanis to Croesus, the king of Lydia: “You are preparing for war against the sort of men who wear leather trousers and leather for all their other garments as well.”

But the book looks so smart sitting there on your shelf. It would be a pity to actually read it.

The 954-pager seems destined to end up under quite a few trees on Tuesday. Whether anyone opens it is another story. In the season of gift-giving, the ratio of books bought to books read tilts heavily toward the bought.

Translation: “I had to read 40 pages to find the first sex scene.”

That’s partly because as shopping becomes more frantic, books are the refuge of the desperate. Don’t know what to give your father? How about Alan Greenspan’s “Age of Turbulence.” For your child’s teacher, try one of the new translations of “War and Peace.” The literary climber on your list? Check out “Tree of Smoke,” the garlanded novel by Denis Johnson.

Such gifts carry with them a whiff of self-congratulation, as well as flattery. They say: I’m smart, and I think you are, too. People also often buy themselves these books in the hopes of stocking their shelves — or these days, their Facebook or MySpace profiles — with titles that tell the world “who I am,” even if all they can really say is, “I bought it.”

Translation: “I did all of this and went into a shame spiral that I haven’t come out of, and I’m not even sure there’s sex scenes in any of those books, because. . .wait for it. . .I haven’t read them!”

Editor’s note: Who is the loser who puts a book on his or her Facebook as a favorite that they haven’t yet read? Also, war with men who wear all leather= hot. . .

Part of this kind of book buying, of course, is good intentions. “You imagine yourself as being better read than you are, and you especially imagine that in the future you’re going to be better read than you are,” said Michael Kinsley, a columnist for Time magazine. “You think over Christmas things will slow down and I will have all this time to do the reading I didn’t have time to do during the year. There are half a dozen delusions like that that the book industry thrives on.”

Translation: “I, like yourself and Michael Kinsley, am bitter about working in the white-collar sweatshop we call America.”

That we are what we read isn’t precisely one of those delusions. Prospective friends and partners talk about favorite books to see whether their tastes are compatible. And paeans to the way books can shape personality abound.

Translation: “I think this guy looked through my book shelf while I went to the bathroom and then broke up with me afterwards, thinking that I’d read all of those books. He was hot and dumb and I’m so, so sorry, if you’re reading this, though I know you don’t read. Also, if I read another teacher thank you by a famous writer I’ll pass out.”

But sometimes a title becomes an It book or a best seller even though most people never make it past Page 9. A famous example is Stephen Hawking’s “Brief History of Time,” a book that promised to turn theoretical physics into easy reading. It spent more than two years on the New York Times best-seller list in hardcover and in the 20 years since it was first published has sold 3.5 million copies in North America, according to Bantam Dell Publishing Group. That’s a number that most likely far exceeds the number of people who actually managed to slog through the slim volume. “The happy thing is we don’t demand a book report of every consumer,” said Irwyn Applebaum, publisher of Bantam.

Translation: “He was basically telling me not to screw his future sales up but . . .I’m going to run this quote anyway.”

Mr. Kinsley, when he was editor of The New Republic, once famously set out to prove that people weren’t reading books they were buying. He and a colleague slipped coupons worth $5 into the backs of copies of titles like “Deadly Gambits” by Strobe Talbott and “The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong” by Ben J. Wattenberg. Nobody redeemed the coupons.

Editor’s note: 8 Billion dollars in gift cards went unclaimed last year. This doesn’t actually prove anything except that people who bought these books didn’t need the 5 bucks.

Translation: “Science!”

Generally, the phenomenon of buying without reading is difficult to quantify. But in Britain this year, a survey by the Museums, Libraries and Archive Council found that 33 percent of adults confessed to lying about reading a book to appear more intelligent.

Translations: “More science!” Also: “67% did not. But don’t look that way. Look this way! Trends piece! Hi!”

To be fair, by most accounts, many of the biggest sellers of the year, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales, are books that are probably actually read: “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” the second novel by Khaled Hosseini, “Eat, Pray, Love,” the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, and three titles by the thriller writer James Patterson.

Translation: “I read these books.”

But booksellers and others in the industry agree that there are always books that are more honored in the buying than in the reading. “We call them G.U.B.’s,” said Elaine Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., for “Great Unread Books.” Ms. Petrocelli said she heard a publishing sales representative coin the phrase nearly 20 years ago when she was trying to get extra copies of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.” A good dinner-party book, but she doubted people actually read it.

Translation: “Nothing says trends like a retread!”

Too many people give books for the wrong reasons, the best-selling Mr. Patterson said. There are those who select for snob appeal, buying books that critics have deemed worthy (not that these can’t be great books that people love to read). “Then you have the ‘I’m going to change you for the better with this book’ kind of giver,” Mr. Patterson said. “And then the ‘I know one thing about you’ giver, people who think ‘you like sports, so I’ll give you a book about sports.’ ”

Sometimes it’s simply that givers make buying decisions based on limited information. Sarah Baum, a mother of four in Mission Hills, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City, said she recently heard Helen Thomas speak at a bookstore and decided to buy several copies of Ms. Thomas’s “Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public” and give them as gifts.

“I haven’t read it,” Ms. Baum admitted. “I am a little concerned that I am giving a book that people will say, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ and a year from now it will show up at the school book sale.”

Editor’s note: I’m losing the will to finish this.

Roundups of the best books of the year can also drive people to bookstores. Thom Geier, a senior editor at Entertainment Weekly who oversees the magazine’s books section, suggested that “Tree of Smoke,” which has appeared on a number of “Best of” lists (including that of The New York Times) and won the National Book Award for fiction, might spend a lot of time gathering dust on the nightstand. “Unsuspecting readers may think that it’s one of these fictional romps through history,” Mr. Geier said. “They may be surprised to discover that Denis Johnson is a purveyor of rather dense prose that can be as thorny and complicated as a Laotian jungle.”

Translation: “Did I mention already that ‘Tree of Smoke’ was not as easy to read as internet porn?” Also: “Americans like lists!”

Sometimes the idea of the book — and its physical presence — is as important as content. “I think they become features in the intellectual landscape,” said Alberto Manguel, author of “A History of Reading” and “Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography,” out this month. “You don’t need to climb it or visit it, you just need to know it’s there.”

Translation: “Smart people who don’t believe this are happy to speculate that it could be true.”

Oh God. Okay, I think I’m done. Merry merry, and I’m coming back shortly with my attempt at a year-end round-up.

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