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The Psychology of Books: Why We Read What We Read

January 7, 2013 Books, Reading, Writing 18 Comments

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By Dell Smith

Buying and reading books are deeply emotional and personal acts. Your choices of reading material are based on an intricate and truly limitless combination of marketing influences and mercurial emotions. This goes for both buying books and deciding which book to read next. Two different things, but closely related as each is influenced by a mysterious algorithm of instinct and urge, want and need, stimulus both external and internal.

Your desire to buy and read a book uncovers the dark hinterland of your soul. Your choices are often a reflection of your id. I can spend hours online or in a bookstore browsing the shelves (virtual and real). In person, I’ll first check the new releases (fiction, mostly) and then do a deep dive into the stacks, sometimes A to Z. Often I’ll have jotted down the name of an author who I’m interested in because of his/her previous work, I’ve read about them someplace, or I dig other books from the same publisher.

Case in point—while researching a blog post, I read an article about novelist Mark Helprin whose name I’ve been aware of for years, but based on the article which touted his quiet, subtle prose, I went out and picked up Winter’s Tale. I’ve yet to read it but buying the book is the first necessary step.If I’m shopping used books, then the rules change. I’ll spend a couple bucks on a book I’m unsure about, a book I’m unwilling to spend full price on. If I read it and like it, well then, I’ll go and buy more books from that writer. And at full price. Buying used books is like going to a library that charges for checking out books. A lot of times I will donate my read books to library book sales, Used Book Superstores, and other charitable organizations so the cycle of inexpensive book discovery is paid forward.

I have a queue of at least a hundred books waiting to be read. When I finish a book I jot down the title and author (I keep track of the books I read each year), and then mosey on over to my bookshelves—the ones that hold the promise of a bright new reading tomorrow—and let my subconscious take over. I allow myself to enter a fugue state of longing. It’s like picking a candy bar—so many choices. Each book has a wrapper of a colorful promise. Each title cradles a suggestion that speaks directly to my unconscious.

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When I decide which book to read, it comes down to my mood at that precise moment. Sometimes it depends on the book I just finished reading. Was it a novel? Well, then maybe I want to try a book of short stories next. Or possibly a memoir.  Was the last book a long slog through the precious, august mind of a revered white male Nobel Prize winner? Maybe my next book should be a short slice of pulp fiction from the 40s. Or a classic by Virginia Woolf. Or the recent YA sensation my sister recommended.  But wait, here’s a book I bought five years ago with a faded spine by an author who recently died. I forgot about you my friend. But no longer. I shall give you a whirl. Yes, I have found my next book to read. Yeah, it’s that simple.

But also that complicated. Take the seemingly innocuous book-as-gift scenario. On the surface, books are the perfect gift. Who doesn’t like to get a book? And what avid reader doesn’t like to spend hours deciding which book is right for which person on her gift buying list? Oh, the peril. Oh, the potential folly. Giving books is a tricky road. What you consider the perfect book for a sister, dad, or wife can turn into a fraught gift-unwrapping experience. You know it’s good, but the look on their faces tells all. As they coyly rip the wrapping there comes either a big grin that says Perfect or a shiver of incomprehension and disappointment before the cursory, Oh you shouldn’t have, which really means you’ve made a grave miscalculation.

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But what of book clubs? Book clubs exist so you don’t have to make a choice. As my father-in-law pointed out over a recent lunch, with book clubs “the book finds you.” Very true. The question of which book to buy next becomes obsolete and thus removes the variable of emotion or decision. Let Oprah decide for you. Or that book club on the Today show, or on GoodReads, or your old-school in-person book club.

If you belong to the Quality Paperback Book Club or Doubleday Book Club, you can sit back and let each month’s featured selection get sent to your door. Lots of publishers have book club-type deals. For example, for a hundred bucks McSweeney’s will send you every book they release over the next year as part of their Book Release Club. Decision solved. Questions all gone. Just check your mailbox and there’s your new book.

I turned to the Internets and did an impromptu survey: What determines the books you read? Also, what goes into your decision to buy a book? Here are the answers, many covering both questions:

  • Choosing what book to read verifies a momentary feeling or mood. I read seasonally—meaning, I’ll read a book which takes place over the Fourth of July at that time of year.
  • Friend’s recommendations.
  • Books by authors I love.
  • I buy books based on recommendations on NPR.
  • Depends on my mood.
  • To buy: The balance in my bank account, and my upcoming availability for reading.
  • Book reviews in blogs, The Week, Goodreads, in papers.
  • I go to library where they have a list of recommended books. Also, I read a book a month for my book club and my son gives me really good books.
  • Books by my friends.
  • I don’t often buy books but I love to find books in the library or in the book swap at work. We also have hundreds of books at home! I often take the recommendations of friends, family, and my kids.
  • I buy very few books these days. Mostly I am rereading old favorites. Also, depends on the stage in my life. At one stage in my life, I bought many self-improvement books. At another stage, I became interested in nature. I bought many bird books, books about wild flowers, mushrooms, trees, handbooks for identification.
  • Definitely recommendations, but only from very, very few sources…and increasingly writer interviews seem to be playing a bigger role.
  • Author posts on Facebook and Twitter (but not so much the posts trying to sell their book).
  • The cover (although not the cover blurbs).
  • Usually, it’s the book jacket blurb that pulls me in — or not.
  • Book covers—sometimes.
  • I always think about buying a book if it has a beautiful cover and is about something in which I am interested.
  • The editor, for story collections.
  • If a book wins a certain award, I may buy it.
  • Word of mouth. Or when my Dad says he’s despondent because there won’t be another volume because the author’s died.
  • References in other books and media.
  • Amazon recommendations.
  • Book descriptions.
  • I actually don’t read enough. I mostly read articles, news, and short stories. As a result of my lack of reading, when I pick up novels and larger books, I tend to go for things that are strange and unorthodox.
  • Depends on my mood.

Okay, you get the idea. Subjective, personal, yet often universal. What about you? Where do you fit into the book buying and reading scenario?


Currently there are "18 comments" on this Article:

  1. Great topic, Dell. The Next Book. I know some people plan this diligently, and I talk about the TBR pile, too, with the best of intentions. But there’s always sidelining: TRUTH AND BEAUTY? it definitely needs an AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE chaser. A re-read of CROSSING TO SAFETY leads to a friend’s shocked exclamation that I’ve never read BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN, and I’m off to the races, a special order from my local bookstore. And then there’s the “shoulds” and “need tos.”

    At the same time, the older I get the more I realize how little time there really is to read. I’m hoping that 20 years from now I’ll have redefined Should and Need To.

  2. Dell Smith Dell Smith says:

    Thanks Nichole. You’re right: there are only so many books you can read in a lifetime (not mention books and stories you can write).

  3. Leslie Greffenius Leslie Greffenius says:

    Great post, Dell. I often wonder at how others organize their reading life – partly because I am not entirely happy with what seems to me the randomness of my own…I think Nichole is right about the sidelining, for a lot of people: I may have a number of books on my TBR shelf, but then I catch an interview on NPR about, say, the movie “West of Memphis” about three boys, including one Damien Echols, who were falsely convicted (the evidence was, apparently, laughable) of the brutal murder of three young boys. The three spent 18 years in prison before they were released, and they have still not been acquitted. I was interested in the interview because it featured both Peter Jackson, the producer of “West of Memphis,” and Damien Echols himself. Echols was eloquent on the topic of why the public – and jury – so readily determined that he was guilty. Anyway, after I listened to the interview, I received an email from Porter Square Books which listed its author appearances for the month. At the top of the list was Damien Echols, who is appearing tomorrow night at PSB! So now, I am breaking off from my TBR list – including the book I am reading – to read his “Life After Death”.

    • Dell Smith Dell Smith says:

      It’s true – it’s impossible to plan ahead because you will invariably get sidetracked. I’ve organized my books, and do have a shelf for books most likely to be read next. But that doesn’t mean my finicky brain won’t switch gears when it comes time to take a book off the shelf. My outline well the A > B > C nature of choosing a book.

  4. I love this post, Dell! Great insight into the numerous reasons why one buys and reads a book. I know I want a riviting, entertaining story.
    Thanks. :)

  5. […] are 25 answers, which means there are no answers. (side note: when did intentional subject/verb disagreements signify modernity on the […]

  6. Cindy says:

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. I recently read “The Ideal Bookshelf”, and one of their challenges is to define your 10 favorite books. That has helped me to determine my reading preferences – I really took some time to think about why I chose those 10. I also tend to enjoy browsing bookstores. Books seem to jump out at me like neon signs when I am just browsing. It is rare that I pick books based on recommendations; it usually has to do with my personal preferences at the moment.

    • Dell Smith Dell Smith says:

      Hi Cindy. I agree – regardless of your best intentions to read a recommended book you may or may not enjoy, how you feel at the moment of choosing your next book to read is key.

      I like the idea of picking 10 favorite books, and figuring out why they’re your favorites. I’m going to try it and see what I find out.

  7. […] Read this piece considering why we read books the way we do (ht: largeheartedboy). […]

  8. […] A person’s marginalia might reveal something about their thought process, but what about the psychology of how we choose what to read? Beyond the Margins author Dell Smith discusses this in his article “The Psychology of Books“: […]

  9. […] I came across this article by Dell Smith – The Psychology of Books: Why We Read What We Read, I had to share. I think this article was written for me (except the bit about being mailed random […]

  10. […] I also discovered that how one selects a book to purchase seemed almost as important as the book itself. From Dell Smith’s post on the blog Beyond the Margins, The Psychology of Books: Why We Read What We Read: […]

  11. Miriam says:

    You’re absolutely right: so many factors, both conscious and unconscious, affect our book buying decisions. That’s why this year I’m advocating reading random books alphabetically. Some will be hits; others misses — but all will be part of a grand reading adventure.

    You can read along with me here: I’d love the company!

  12. Eclici says:

    I feel the title of this article is somewhat of a bait-and-switch. I expected to read a scientific, researched article discussing the psychology behind how people choose books– instead we got your ponderings on the issue and a list of responses to an Internet survey that could be summed up by the generic phrase, “Subjective, personal, yet often universal.” (Is there anything that description couldn’t apply to?) You write that “your desire to buy and read a book uncovers the dark hinterland of your soul,” but never support that argument– how does my book selection uncover the dark hinterland of my soul? Yes, the phrase sounds nice, but it is meaningless unless you can support it with evidence.

    Perhaps you should consider changing the title of this post to reflect the reflective style of this blogpost. The current title is misleading and causes readers to expect a post that is researched and fact-based, not opinion-based.

  13. […] I also discovered that how one selects a book to purchase seemed almost as important as the book itself. From Dell Smith’s post on the blog Beyond the Margins, The Psychology of Books: Why We Read What We Read: […]

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Dell Smith

Dell Smith
Dell Smith is a fiction writer. He grew up on Cape Cod and left town to study filmmaking. He writes stories and novels, and works as a technical writer at a software company northwest of Boston. He has also worked as a videotape editor, cook, music video lackey, TelePrompTer operator, accounts receivable clerk, assistant film editor, caterer, roadie, flea market vendor, videotape duplicator, and wedding videographer. He has lived in Worcester, Bridgeport, Van Nuys, Billerica, Ithaca, Florham Park, Fairfield, and Simi Valley. He brings his life experience to bear in his fiction. His writing has appeared in Fiction, Tropus, J. Journal, Lynx Eye Quarterly, and Grub Street’s 10th anniversary anthology Hacks. He is a regular contributor to The Review Review and maintains a blog, Unreliable Narrator at, featuring essays on movies, writing, and the publishing biz, along with book reviews and author interviews. He is currently writing a novel. Read Full