At Least They Read

Years ago, after I had dropped out of law school for the first time, I worked at Barnes and Noble. And so every day I watched as scores of people purchased dull, vapid or ridiculous books. Fortunately for my delicate sensibilities, I did some of the merchandising, along with book ordering. This gave me an opportunity, however small, to influence (hopefully) at least some book purchasers. In fact, I had several regulars who would seek me out for my latest recommendations. Nevertheless, a tiny part of me died every day there.

My friends and coworkers were not oblivious to my struggles. And more than one of them said to me, “at least they’re reading, Justin.” But I was not convinced then, nor am I now, that reading alone is enough. Sure, it has its benefits, among them a greater understanding of others, increased vocabulary skills, and some nonfiction books might even teach you something. But the mere act of reading itself is not an elixir for our societal shortcomings with respect to knowledge or language use.

And that brings me to another thought. Spend any time in the nonfiction sections of any non-academic bookstore and you will be bombarded with what I like to call pop nonfiction or nonfiction lite. These are books that have largely dumbed down in order to appeal to a wider audience. However, some are not just made simpler, but contain outright factual inaccuracies that are beyond the general interest reader’s ability to detect.

This goes beyond the typical wingnut welfare trash from O’Reilly, Beck et al. And it touches areas of the bookstore outside of politics and current affairs. I have seen pop philosophy books, pop mathematics (which makes zero sense to me; I know of no non-math geek who would read a book about math), and the ever odious pop psychology, or as it is often called- self help.

But the past year has brought forth a bevvy of pop finance/macroeconomics tomes die to the Great Recession. Some of these are indeed well-written and informative books, like Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market. Others are hyperventilating screeds against the Stimulus and/or TARP. And some others are paeans to the mighty magical free market (I’m looking at you, Steve Forbes).

I realize that there has always been, and always will be, crappy books (Danielle Steele and most other genre fiction authors). But in the far distant past, it seemed as if most were of the bad fiction variety. Then we got inane self help pablum. And now it has spread like a virus throughout the bookstore (Regnery). With so much crap on the shelves the likelihood of finding a good book, unless one is a dedicated shopper, is approaching zero. Perhaps we would all be better off if we just stopped reading.

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