Not All Who Read Need a Guide

I’ve noticed that in a lot of the books I’ve purchased recently – I’d say the majority published after 2009, at least – the end of the book is not really the end. After the end of the book, there’s an author page, sometimes a glossary for some fucking reason, and then a Reader’s Guide, which outlines each chapter of the book, usually includes book club discussion questions, and sometimes features an interview or essay from the author.

While I understand the point of Reader’s Guides and know there must be some demand for them or else publishers wouldn’t bother, personally, as a reader myself, I am not a fan.

First of all, a Reader’s Guide feels like cheating. There’s this handy guide in the back of the book that anyone can just flip to; it’s not like the Reader’s Guide pages unlock only after you’ve spent an allotted amount of time on all the pages that came before them. Anyone who doesn’t want to spend the proper time with the book, getting to know the characters and the voice and finding that rhythm to understand the whole world inside the book, can just go to the back and start reading the chapter summaries, because to the kind of person who does that, the chapter summary is just as good as the chapter itself, because to that kind of person, it’s only important to know what happens. Now, what happens is a very important part of writing, and if nothing happens in something you write then you’ve just wasted everyone’s time. But there’s more than just what happens in a book, and you’re not going to get that from a chapter summary. Or you might, but only in a small handful of selected lines, gestures, bits of dialogue, and that’s like overhearing one person’s conversation on the bus while you’re listening to your iPod and scrolling through text messages at the same time. It’s not enough to warrant actually holding the book in your hands and experiencing it as a whole, and if you’re the kind of person who does this, then why are you buying books to begin with?

Second, as someone who is willing to immerse myself in the book and experience it as a whole without referring to the Reader’s Guide, it feels like the publisher isn’t giving me enough credit by putting it back there. Like they assume I’ll flip back there or, worse, that they want me to flip back there, because although it’s a sad truth that paper-ink-and-glue publishing will die someday, I at least want a publisher to have faith in the medium and those who consume it.

I go back-and-forth about book club questions. Like all of the Reader’s Guide, I understand their basic purpose, just like I understand the purpose of a book club. However, I feel that trying to force or guide a reader’s (or group of readers’) discussion about a book and their experience of it is kind of aggressive, and again, I think it cheapens the book’s opinion of the reader (I mean, I know it’s not the book’s or the author’s fault, but that easier to write than speculating on publishers’ motives, and it’s important to note that I have never been in that business). Is the reader so incapable of appreciating and thinking critically about the book that they require pre-ordained questions about it when discussing it with others? Is the reader to be trusted with understanding the work? Are all book clubs supposed to be made up of suburban moms who do whatever Oprah and Stephenie Meyer say and unwilling to develop their own opinions or drive their own thought processes? It doesn’t help that most of the book club questions I’ve seen in Reader’s Guides are the laziest, freshman-year-lit-teacher-style questions possible (eg, the old “why do you think the author made the curtains blue” question, as if the curtains can’t just be blue). If I wanted that kind of shit in my head, I’d look at the misspelled notes in the margins of my old term papers, the ones I suspect the teacher made almost illegible on purpose because it was obvious that she’d never read the books I was writing about.

I’m more tolerant of author interviews than I am with author essays, although I still don’t quite understand the usefulness of interviews because if I want to know more about the author – the mark of a really good book, if you believe Holden Caulfield – I have the Internet. If there’s no jacket photo, I’ll Google the author to see what they look like. After I’m done reading, I hasten to add, because I have been swayed by a weird author photo before (see: Renfield, Slave of Dracula, where the author looked like a mentally ill homeless woman attacking the photographer and I have to believe that was the best shot out of the whole session). Everyone asks the same questions, anyway, and if I’m going to read an interview, I’d rather it be conducted by an actual literary publication rather than some PR piece engineered by the book’s publisher.

The essays are what I really can’t stand. Listen, authors, you had your chance. If not an introduction, then a prologue. If not a prologue, then the whole book. If not the whole book, then maybe a short companion piece on your Web site or in the press packet which is also online. If you can’t get the full point across in any of these ways, then an essay is not going to get the job done, either. Game over. You lost.

I just want to be able to begin a book, make the commitment to knowing and living inside of it for a time, and forming my own opinion of it as a complete work. I want to make my own decisions about what an author meant or where they intended the story to go, and whether or not I think they made it there. I can read, you know. I’ve done this before. Again, I understand the point of a Reader’s Guide and I’m sure one can answer these questions for some people, but I wish they were optional. Like CliffsNotes.

About erineph

I'm Erin. I have tattoos and more than one cat. I am an office drone, a music writer, and an erstwhile bartender. I am a cook in the bedroom and a whore in the kitchen. Things I enjoy include but are not limited to zombies, burritos, Cthulhu, Kurt Vonnegut, Keith Richards, accordions, perfumery, and wearing fat pants in the privacy of my own home.
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3 Responses to Not All Who Read Need a Guide

  1. McD says:

    Dude. They’re called Cliff’s Notes for a reason, Cliff (presumably) read the worthless fucking book. These notes better fucking be accurate, because I’m not reading some Melville damage for my fucking health.

  2. Becky says:

    The day paper/ink publishing dies will be a sad day. I read on my iPad but still love and prefer an actual book I can hold. I like seeing it on my shelf and knowing I can always go back to it.

  3. Carmen says:

    I read a NYT article in which book authors discussed their feelings about Reader’s Guides. One author said she tolerates them as long as she (not someone on the publishing staff) gets to write them. That way, she said, she gets to stay at the steering wheel a little bit longer and help the reader bypass typical “Oprah’s Book Club” questions. She also said the Reader’s Guides at least serve as a springboard of discussion, which is better than no discussion (and no sales) at all, right? I personally hate being told what I’m supposed to think and question when I read books. Books are a personal experience. I am also annoyed by the English-Lit-teacher-diehard psychoanalytical assumption that everything has to signify something…that nothing can be taken at face value…that a cigar is never just a cigar….that the author made the curtains blue for some deep-seated reason. Many artists and writers laugh when they find out about how their work is “interpreted.”

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