Research shows ‘popular’ fiction is actually a smart choice

Christmas tree

Christmas shoppers fretting over what book to buy their loved ones have been urged to avoid the trap of picking a critically acclaimed bestseller straight from the shelf, and instead zero in on the reader’s personality to select a book that will gather more dog-ears than dust over the summer break.

Jen Li, from the University of Western Sydney’s Institute for Culture and Society, has researched independent bookstores and is currently completing a PhD investigating the reading tastes of different types of people.

Ms Li says librarians and bookstores, in the process of creating a collection and choosing what books to promote in physical displays and in newsletters, have the ability to influence what books we read, yet they often create a distinction between worthy reading and light reading.

She says her research has found most people don’t limit their reading to simply ‘popular’ or 'literary' books, and that people from all occupations, education levels and ages read a wide variety of books - including airport bestsellers, classics and ‘modern literature’.

She says the biggest trap people fall into is buying a marquee title in an attempt to appear sophisticated to their relatives as the gift wrapping is removed and the big reveal is made in front of the Christmas tree.

“The critically acclaimed masterpieces are always a tempting option, but I would argue shoppers should be honest with themselves and weigh up whether their loved ones would prefer a complex and thought-provoking tome or an easy and compelling novel while relaxing over summer,” Ms Li says.

“Every family is filled with unique characters, so I suggest you have a close look at the range of personality types among your loved ones to buy them the book they will actually read, rather than the one that make you look cultured and erudite to all your relatives.”

To make the most of your chance to please those on your Christmas list, here are Jen Li’s suggestions:

  • For the ethical eater who preaches the merits and free range values of their Christmas turkey and pork crackling - Michael Pollan is the perfect choice, in particular Cooked, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and In Defence of Food
  • For the medical genius spouting the scientific consequences of one too many rumballs– The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge or The Pen and the Stethoscope by Leah Kaminsky
  • For the absent traveller who has ditched the Christmas dinner for backpacking- Anything by Bill Bryson! My favourite is Down Under. Brian Thacker is also a funny Australian travel writer
  • For the career man in the midst of a mid-life crisis over the true value of his job: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood
  • For the immaculate home owner that just loves new gift-style books for their glass coffee table: The crazy cartoons of Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh. She is a genius!

“Of course literature is innately creative, original, intellectual, tasteful and concerned with representing life itself, and there are some family members who would be thrilled with your gift of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton,” says Ms Li.

“But for everyone else, Christmas and the summer is that treasured part of the year when you are finally granted time away from your busy working life and have the first opportunity in months to pick up a book and lose yourself.”

“Reading should be enjoyable, whether you get enjoyment out of beautiful prose or a playful romp- you shouldn't feel bad about your reading choices if they are a little bit lowbrow by other people’s standards.”


12 December 2013

Contact: Mark Smith, Senior Media Officer

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