Archive for the ‘Be My Guest’ Category

Okay, people! Get your thinkin’ caps on. Two real, live authors would love to hear what you think about books and reading.

Thanks so much to Lisa and John for guest posting this week!


We read the books. We did the research. And we put forth a lot of crackpot theories. But we want to hear from real readers – real book-lovers. Why and how do you read what you read?

Below are several questions prompted by our findings in Why We Read What We Read. If you’ve got the time and inclination, we’d love it if you’d answer a few of them. (Or, if you’d prefer not to post publicly, you can send us a message at We would be ever so overjoyed to hear from real, live human beings on these topics that mean so much to us.

1. Our findings suggest that most readers focus on fiction or nonfiction — but not both — with women preferring the former and men the latter. Does your reading follow those patterns?

2. Do you read multiple genres? If so, which ones? Are there any genres you won’t read? What would it take you to read something outside your normal genres? If you do read primarily one genre, what about it do you find so satisfying?

3. Do you like to read all the works of a few favorite authors or do you prefer to try out unfamiliar authors? Is it better to know what you’re getting, even if a book is just okay, or take a risk on a (possibly great and possibly terrible) new author?

4. How do you pick the books you read? Do you mainly rely on reviews, recommendations from friends, Oprah, book clubs, blogs, random selections from bookstore shelves?

5. Do you read religious books? If so, are you looking to learn about an unfamiliar religion, or deepen your existing religious beliefs?

6. Do you read political books? If so, do you read them more for information or ammunition? Do you read books written by members of opposing political parties? Why or why not?

7. Much bestselling literary fiction focuses on female friendships and/or relationships between mothers and daughters. Are these topics you enjoy? How do you feel about how women are portrayed in contemporary literary fiction?

8. Are you in a book group? What kinds of books does your club choose? Are the members of your group primarily one age group and/or gender?

9. Ultimately, why do you think you read? Is the satisfaction you gain from reading mostly intellectual, emotional, spiritual, or social (i.e. participation in book groups)? Are you looking for entertainment, new ideas, escape, a powerful experience, comfort, discomfort?

And with that, we’ll creep back to our own blog ( and get back to reviewing the books


loves most. Thanks, Lisa, for having us -– and for doing all you do to promote literacy and great books!


Another guest post from Lisa Adams and John Heath, co-authors of Why We Read What We Read. Enjoy!


Lots of people ask us for a list of the best and worst bestsellers that we reviewed while writing Why We Read What We Read. To that, we usually say, read the book yourself! But that look in your eye is unnerving, so we’re going to tell you anyway. “Best” and “worst,” however, are way too boring, so we’ve come up with our own special award series: the Killer Albinos!

The Killer Albinos, were, of course, named for Silas, Dan Brown’s alabaster villain in The Da Vinci Code. Who else but a killer albino could represent—nay, symbolize!—America’s contemporary bestselling landscape? No one. Silas is the ultimate. He is our new mascot.

But as such, he can’t win any awards. Thus we hand over the Killer Albino for BEST ALBINO WHO ISN’T SILAS to that kid who plays Draco in the Harry Potter movies, because even though he isn’t supposed to be an albino he rather looks like one.

Okay, okay…books.

One thing that made us pretty mad throughout our project was how short and insubstantial many bestsellers actually were. Here we were spending years researching and writing this dumb book, and a lot of other people were making millions of dollars on junk they probably wrote in a weekend. We were stupid; they were lame—it was all a bit infuriating.

It was hard to decide just who was doing the least amount of work, however. Celebrities like Dr. Laura and Bill O’Reilly basically paste together their radio/TV transcripts and slap in a little commentary. Mystery/thriller author James Patterson is also a contender; all of his books are short to begin with, and most are co-authored by what we can only imagine are desperate unknowns hoping to break into the mystery scene—how much does the big-name actually do? But the official Killer Albino Award for LEAST EFFORT goes to Spencer Johnson for Who Moved My Cheese? This unspectacular little parable, popular mainly in the business world, is less than 100 pages, its giant print supplemented by drawings of cheese and mice. Yet in the first ten years of’s existence, it was the #1 seller, and over 10 million copies are now in print.

On the other side of the equation are those authors who don’t seem to do anything but write. By far, romance writers are the most prolific in the world of bestsellers, often cranking out multiple novels a year. And these babies are long—usually in the 300-500 page range. Sure, the authors get to cut a few corners simply by writing in a genre that deliberately limits plot and character options, but each of those words still has to be written.

Of these busy ladies, though, no one does it quite like Nora Roberts, who takes away the Killer Albino for MOST LIKELY TO BE A CYBORG. This dynamo publishes about 8-9 full-length novels every year—one every six weeks! Only a robot (or perhaps the perpetually productive Bluestalking Reader) could possibly accomplish such a feat.

Romances certainly possess a strong fantastical component, but with 10-15 of them hitting the bestselling charts each week, we couldn’t possibly choose. Instead we award the Killer Albino for BEST FEMALE FANTASY to He’s Just Not That Into You by Greg Berendt and Liz Tucillo. We actually like this funny little book quite a bit and agree wholeheartedly with its basic premise. However, its constant assertions that every lonely female is perfect, lovable, and—most importantly—HOT, quickly start to border on the ludicrous. This book will make the perfect pick-me-up holiday gift for all the ailing girls you know, especially if they are none of the above.

The boys, on the other hand, can enjoy some testosterone-soaked splendor from Clive Cussler, who takes the award for BEST MALE FANTASY with his Dirk Pitt series. Dirk is a Real Man, a swashbuckling adventurer, Casanova, and fine-dining enthusiast (heavy on the wine and exotic game). He’s so studly it hurts. These books are so patently wish-fulfillmenty that we feel a little embarrassed for anyone caught reading them—it’s sort of the literary equivalent of buying a really, really big truck.

But there’s no shame in reading about historical heroes, and, while the bestseller lists are not overflowing with choices in this genre, one of the best authors consistently hits the charts. Thus we hand over the Killer Albino for MANLIEST MEN IN TIGHTS to David McCullough for his recent smash 1776.

Other authors, especially the ones considered “literary,” prefer the realm of the anti-hero. One of the most enjoyable of these is Jonathan Franzen, who creates a fabulous cast of misfits in The Corrections. This hilariously hopeless family beats out other pathetic charmers to take the Killer Albino for MOST LOVABLY DYSFUNCTIONAL.

Then there’s the underdog hero—the one who wins our hearts not with a beefy bod and a fine chardonnay (as in the genre fiction), or a life more crass and humiliating than our own (as in the anti-hero fiction), but with a mighty spirit strong enough to overcome a plague of limitations. “Affliction fiction” is ragingly popular, stories that take readers into the angst-ridden souls of outcasts of every flavor. Whether these characters must overcome a diminutive stature, a troubling disease, or an ill-developed brain, chances are they will do so with irrepressible moxie. This genre tends to slather on the sap, but some offerings can be delightful, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon—which wins the Killer Albino for BEST PORTRAYAL OF A SPECIAL PERSON.

Then again, sometimes talent and sap can exist in one man. Mitch Albom takes the SURPRISE TALENT AWARD for his heartwarming crop of mega-sellers, Tuesdays with Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and For One More Day. You might not care for Albom’s trademark sentimental undertones, but don’t be too mean—the man actually writes well. Can you blame the guy for knowing his audience?

Some surprises are not so pleasant, however—like the realization that millions of men believe what John Gray says about women in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. But, while a bit sad, the amazing success of the Mars-Venus books is not too shocking. The hit that really blows our minds, thus winning the YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME AWARD, is Embraced by the Light by Betty J. Eadie. In this book, Eadie describes her long near-death experience and visit to heaven. She sends messages of love and peace, but still—what a racket! More than six million people bought her book, however, paving the way for the recent success of 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, which has already sold over 1.4 million copies in just two years. Man, if only we weren’t so ethical, we know what our next book would be!

Finally, there are plenty of authors that earn their spots on the bestseller lists with great skill and powerful storytelling—the ones that deserve to be there not because they tapped into some trend or zeitgeist, but simply because they write wonderful books. Even they, however, rarely make it without serious luck and serious help. Oprah Winfrey—does anyone else have such power?—can even take a book that goes against America’s tastes and make it a top-seller. Thus our final Killer Albino, the LUCKIEST BASTARD AWARD, goes to Andre Dubus III for his wonderful book House of Sand and Fog. This novel has everything that America tends to shun: unsympathetic characters, moral grays, and undiluted tragedy. Yet Oprah loved it, and made it the success it deserves to be. Bravo, Andre! And bravo, Oprah!

I have known Simon for, oh, what is it now… Five years? Six? More? Anyway, he and I have been on the same book discussion list for several years now, and through those years I’ve seen him grow from high schooler to Oxford University student to a graduate of Oxford. Now, I’m pleased to say, he is embarking on the wild journey that leads to LIBRARY SCHOOL.

He’s so charming and witty. After reading his guest post I know you’ll agree.

Simon blogs at Stuck in a Book, where he writes about all his bookish adventures, illustrated with his own impressive drawings. Swing by and visit him when you can!

(Thank you, Simon! xo)


I have never agreed to be on panels for judging architectural excellence. Nor, indeed, have I been asked – but should such an occasion take place, it is unlikely that my immediate action would be to locate a directory of libraries. Though redoubtable sources for reference and learning, libraries are rarely intrinsically beautiful buildings, pleasing aesthetically as well as academically. If, however, I were to create a retrospective award for Architectural Beauty 1489, first-place would have to be handed to the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, England.

Having just finished a degree in English at Magdalen College in Oxford University, and looking for the requisite work-experience before I can begin Library School, I applied for a Graduate Traineeship at the Bodleian. This is basically a year of being a general dogsbody for the people responsible for the dreaming spires’ little collection of books. 8 million of them, that is. On 117 miles of shelving. Quite a lot of which is underground. Oh boy.

Nobody quite understands the Oxford University Library system, least of all the poor librarians. Each college (there are 30+) has a library. Each department (another 30+) has a library. The central Bodleian has a fair few constituent parts too. If there’s one thing Oxford has no short supply of… well, it’s souvenir shops, but if there’s something else they have no short supply of, it’s libraries. I applied with a general departmental application, but ended up with the Golden Ticket – a place as a Bodleian Trainee, moving around all over the place, probably getting to know each individual book by name, nickname and pseudonym.

Week One. I’m in the Stack. That’s what we call the underground section of the library, where shelves and shelves and shelves and shelves of books are stored, just waiting for the readers to request them. This is mostly done by computer now, except for one reading room (the Duke Humphrey’s – as a brief aside, the librarians’ canteen is called Duke Hungry’s. Never let it be said that we don’t have a sense of humour. Or humor, for your side of the Pond). The Duke Humphrey’s still uses a vacuum pipe – slips of paper are put into metal tubes, and shot underground. Wow. As stack staff, we found the books (by no means a simple procedure, since each decade seems to have brought a new shelfmark system), put them in packing cases, and thrust them into an enormous conveyor, which moves under the streets of Oxford. So far, so good. Then I moved to the illustriously named Floor J – still underground, but requiring keys and codes and secret handshakes. This is where the manuscripts and rare books are kept. For readers, these are precious and must be held scrupulously carefully – I, on the other hand, was free to wander around as I pleased, reading what I liked. If you’re the jealous type, look away now. I got to hold and read a letter written by Jane Austen. Actually written by her own hand. And held in my own hands. It’s a defining moment of my life. It almost made the other things I saw seem mundane – and they were letters by Robert Burns (apologising for being drunk, and trying to evade a duel), C.S. Lewis, a handwritten version of Wind in the Willows, Hitler’s marriage certificate… it’s a veritable goldmine down there.

That was week one. Since then I’ve been consigned to the Science area for three months. No disrespect, but after having held Jane Austen’s letter, periodicals entitled The Knee lose their lustre. I’m glad I have two knees, but have never felt the lack of monthly updates. Another is entitled simply Blood. Edited by Bram Stoker, presumably. Still, all a learning curve, and all grist to the mill – when shelving tomes on High Tech Ceramics, I shall be able to think of Jane and, contentedly, sigh.