On the nature of appeal

A large part of my job is helping readers find their next book to read ("readers' advisory" in the jargon). My patrons and I talk about authors and books they like and don't like, and based on those conversations I'll try and pick out some books that they'll enjoy reading the next time around. There are lots of great tools out there for this (from Readers' Advisory databases to review web sites and book blogs), and I've learned (and am still learning) to ask certain questions when a person tells me about a book they did or didn't like, and to hone in on certain appeal factors when they do.

Immersed as I am in this discourse on books and stories (which, on a side note, is basically my favorite part of my job hands down), I am frequently struck by the wide variety of tastes among readers, and the difficulty sometimes in really honing in on what it is that a person finds appealing and enjoyable about a certain book. Sometimes you have to learn to read between the lines -- to listen to what a person means, not just the words they say. For example, I heard two of my patrons discussing 50 Shades of Gray, by E.L. James. Ms. B asked Ms. A if she'd enjoyed the book. "Yes, I'm really enjoying it," Ms. A said. "It's very well-written." My brain froze for a moment. Really? I thought. How interesting! Because, while I haven't read the book myself, everyone else I've talked to and every review I've read pretty much says the same thing: not well-written AT ALL (from a purely objective perspective, regardless of if that type of story is appealing). So in this case, I'm reading between the lines. Other reviews offer a more obviously objective and critical approach: this book is poorly written because of X, Y & Z factors. But Ms. A's review offered a more subjective, appeal-oriented approach: she enjoyed this book and enjoyed the writing style. TO HER, it was well-written because she enjoyed it.

Book appeal is so nebulous...unfixed and changing. I had a patron tell me once that as a retired English teacher she spent a lot of years reading books that made her think...and now she was ready to read some books that required no thinking at all! Even her personal appeal factors had adapted (although I'm pretty sure that because of her background, that person would particularly enjoy light, fun, easy-reading...but still objectively well-written books). Appeal can change from day to day, week to week, and year to year. Appeal is affected by your background, education, personality, mood, and current life situation. I did a paper once on the original appeal of Ian Fleming's James Bond books and the enduring appeal of the James Bond character today. James Bond's stories and adventures were so drastically different from the day-to-day lives of the post-war English men and women. But see...that was part of the appeal, to believe, even for a moment, that there was "life" beyond rations and rubble. My friends and I discussed this just the other day in light of the ever-changing interpretations of James Bond. Everyone's got their favorite...Daniel Craig, for example, exemplifies our more modern desire for a rough-around-the-edges-bad-ass-masculine hero.

When picking a "next read" for someone else or even for yourself, there are a lot of factors that inform that choice, either consciously or unconsciously. And sometimes it's as much about what a person doesn't say, as it is about what they do.