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Being A Good Literary Citizen: A Manifesto

December 13, 2013 Books, Reading, Writers 8 Comments

In the Bookstore II











By Bethanne Patrick

A week or three ago, my friend and fellow writer Cliff Garstang posted a question on Facebook: “What makes a good literary citizen?” It got me thinking–and I haven’t even looked back at his original post to see what kinds of responses he received, because I want to consider this issue from scratch.

First, I’d like to define what just being a “literary citizen” means to me. I think that literary citizenship entails two populations with overlapping needs. The first population consists of the “insiders,” if you will: authors, editors, publishers, critics, journalists, and booksellers, the people who are professionally connected to books and literature. The second population consists of less “outsiders” than of Everyone Else–because everyone is a potential reader. The overlapping needs? Books, duh. However, while the people in the first population of literary citizens are concerned about making money from books (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), the people in both populations want to read excellent books.

What this says to me is that anyone is a potential literary citizen, and also that everyone who takes on the mantle of said citizenship should be interested in making sure excellent books of every kind continue to be available. If that is true, then I think there are a number of things those of us who love books and reading ought to do in order to model good literary citizenship. To wit:

1. Buy books. I thought this was a no-brainer, but then I went to my latest book-group meeting. One of the members was saying how delighted she was to have gotten our next month’s choice for very little money via That Big Online Site. We live just minutes and a handful of miles from a fine independent bookstore–if our entire group, which numbers about 12, bought our copies at that store, it would make a big difference.

2. Recommend books. There are lots of marketing numbers about this, but basically: People read books that their friends and family read. The more often you mention a great new mystery or YA title to other people, the more likely they are to pick it up instead of some other books–or simply dithering and turning back to their shelves of well-worn potboilers.

3. Attend book events. Reading is a solitary activity, but citizenship requires community. You don’t have to hit every event on the local literary calendar, but make an effort to get out to as many as you can. Corollary: When you attend an author event, see #1–it’s simply good manners, and it helps your local bookstore/library/community center host more events.

4. Talk about books. See #2, but don’t stop at simply recommending books; that would make conversation dull. Find out which books other people are reading. Do you hate those books? Why? Do you love something else and want to know more? Ask. Did a particular book change your life? Are there (gasp!) ideas in the books you’ve read that you want to discuss? Don’t limit book talk just to book group night!

5. Get caught reading. I recently went to a crowded bar by myself with a stack of magazines, ordered a drink, and happily set to catching up on some good old-fashioned long-form journalism. Perhaps you’ll bring an iPad instead, but the principle is the same: Let people see that reading remains an enjoyable and honorable pursuit, something worthy of a fine beverage and a bit (or a chunk) or your leisure time.

6. Read to children. And not just because it’s good for them, but because it’s the surest way back to seeing wonder in books when you’re burnt out and thinking about binge-watching every season of “Breaking Bad” rather than read another book. Even older children will often listen to something read aloud if there are snacks involved… Seriously, though, just watch a little one’s face light up at Winnie the Pooh…magic.

7. Connect fellow [writers, booksellers, readers, etc.]. John Donne told you: “No man is an island.” Neither is any writer! If we don’t attend each others’ readings and buy each others’ books, who will? The best and fastest way to help is #1, but there are lots of other things you can do. Invite two author pals who don’t know each other out to coffee. Form a new book club. Praise someone’s work or taste or store in public.

 What actions would you add to this list? 


Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. Good post, B! Nothing to add but funny fact: My dentist always asks me what I’m reading and asks me to keep her up-to-date on book recommendations via email.

  2. Great post. I’m going to try reading in a bar. Love that idea.

  3. On #2: I love hearing what folks are reading. It’s such a great conversation kicker (if not starter) among people you know who like to read. Also, whenever I do a book event, I *love* derailing into recommendations…. Even if I’m not reading as much as I’d like these days.

  4. Linda Taylor says:

    I love literary citizenship–even did my master’s thesis on the topic (because I have the privilege of knowing Cathy Day at Ball State University who is teaching on the topic. Check out her class website at This is a great topic of conversation. Students who come out of creative or professional writing programs often are so focused on “getting published” that they miss the opportunity (and indeed the need personally and professionally) to be good literary citizens in all the ways you describe above. We all need one another! Thanks for a great post. I’m teaching a Lit Cit class this fall and am glad to have these great posts to share with my students.

  5. […] side effect of being “neighborly” in that world (by doing what many lit cit blog posts have discussed regarding ways to be literary citizens) is that when your article or book is […]

  6. Christina Boyd says:

    If I suck at everything else today– I know that I am at least a good, nay! GREAT literary citizen. (Brought a smile to my face!)

    Would gift books be the same as BUY Books? Because I am forever buying books I have loved for friends & relatives.

  7. […] “…anyone is a potential literary citizen, and [     ] everyone who takes on the mantle of said citizenship should be interested in making sure excellent books of every kind continue to be available.” — […]

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Bethanne Patrick

Bethanne Patrick
Bethanne Patrick recently committed to life as a full-time writer after nearly two decades in the publishing industry as a journalist, blogger, and consultant. Her resume includes stints as editor at large for PAGES magazine, editor of AOL Books and contributing editor at Publishers Weekly. She helped to launch Shelf Awareness for Readers and Book Riot and created the #fridayreads hashtag through which thousands of people share their current book choices each week on Twitter. Patrick is the author of two books from National Geographic: An Uncommon History of Common Things (with John Thompson) and An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, O the Oprah Magazine, AARP The Magazine, and many others. Patrick is a columnist for VQR, writing on feminism and culture; she also blogs for O’Reilly Tools of Change about books and publishing. She tweets about things bookish as @TheBookMaven and about things writerly as @JustBethanne. She is currently ... Read Full