I’ve been saving this link from the Globe for two weeks now trying to put together a piece in response. And there are two broad assumptions that I think I want to tackle.
Sure, it is a light fluff piece but the basis of it is that reading the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo books is something we all need to get around to at some point. The Globe and Mail thinks these books are a really big deal – they were yesterday’s feature piece in the Weekend Review again. (and this is part of the fun too; does the Globe put their book article in the niche Book section, the standard Review section, or the populist Life section? Only the ‘big deals’ move from Review into Life.) I feel like I could write a similar piece by now without ever having read the books, thank you Globe and Mail. Through no fault of my own I could tell you a whole lot about these books. But while I can claim to have been unable to avoid the endless references in a daily newspaper that comes to my apartment door every day, I must admit to having intentionally searched out this piece from the New Yorker out of curiosity. Is it a decent parody, is it even fair; I have no idea. But it gets the point across – I really don’t want to read these books.
Is this just my own quest for distinction – am I just carving out my unique cultural tastes by avoiding the new big thing? I don’t think so. Just because everyone else goes to see the new James Bond movie doesn’t deter me from going too – I really like big fantastic spy movies! I like old black and white spy movies and I also went to see Eagle Eye and Enemy of the State and The Bourne Identity even though everyone else did too. But I didn’t go to see Avatar, for instance, because it just didn’t sound very interesting to me. I don’t want to read the Stieg Larsson books because they don’t sound very interesting to me.
The point that they make in The Rebel Sell is one of ‘network externalities.’ Just as a fax machine is only useful if your friends all have fax machines too and you can fax each other stuff, the value of a cultural good is inextricably linked to its social context; the blockbuster effect, where “because so many people are talking about it, others feel obliged to [read] it, just so that they can participate (or because they want to know what everyone is talking about.)” And Dave McGinn is explicit about this is the Globe: “But for those of you who still haven’t read them, it’s almost worth doing so just to decide for yourself what all the hype is about. Considering how many conversation are going to be about the books this summer, you’ll want to weigh in.”
I could, and have, carried on conversations about the Twilight books without any compulsion to read them and I have no doubt that I could do the same by now with these books. It is precisely because they have crossed from the Review section to the Life section – from novels to cultural phenomena – that I don’t need to actually read them to keep up. To read them is almost beside the point.
The second assumption is that we read differently in the summer and this assumption is by no means limited to the Globe. The WordPress TagSurfer gives me the most recent posts tagged with ‘Books’ and ‘Reading’ and in June I read about everyone’s plans for ‘summertime reading.’ People had lists made up for their own reading; people had recommendations for other people’s lists; people were excited to finally start reading now that it was summertime; people had been saving books for the summer. The Globe got into it too – from the same article’s closing: “Remember, school is out. It’s summer. Save your trenchant literary analysis for the heavy books you’ll be reading come winter. What you need now is sex and intrigue and mystery. It’s time.”
Maybe I am being purposefully obtuse here but it is not clear to me why summer reading should be categorically different from spring reading or winter reading or the apparently doom-filled autumn reading season. Unless you are in grade school or taking the summer off from a university course load (which only 1/3 of SFU students do) or dealing with kids who are out of grade school for the summer I do not understand the distinction.
Now in August I am starting to see people post confessional pieces about how few of their summer reading books they’ve managed to actually read. As if these books will all disappear, or change, on Labour Day. As if they won’t be allowed to read any more. As if they’ve failed at a major task. People post these lists of excuses about why they haven’t read more over the summer and in reading these stories I feel as if I’m marking someone’s homework.