What’s sexy in reading now, and what makes it sexy?
While there are always plenty of non-fiction books being released, the really popular ones tend to come in waves where it can feel the whole world is talking about their subject. One year you might be surrounded by excellent accounts of astronomy and the universe, the next it might be branding and mass-marketing that attracts your eye to the book shelf. What is it that makes a formerly serious field of study suddenly become the subject du jour? When does learning suddenly become sexy?
Well, I’d argue that learning and real-life reading is always sexy but – rather like the clichéd librarian character so loved in 80’s movies – real life reads need to take off their ill-fitting specs and let their hair down before the reading public will gasp out, “Why, Ms Non-fiction, you’re beautiful.” It has far less to do with the subject, and far more with the way that subject is presented.
A few years ago, that subject was economics – or to be more precise, Freakonomics. The book that started off a craze of interest in a formerly un-sexy area was Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Written in 2005, it melded pop-culture references with economics to give what had traditionally been the driest of subjects an interesting twist. Its case studies were fascinatingly diverse and engaging; suggesting such controversial theories such as legalising abortion helps reduce crime and shedding light on why Sumo wrestlers were all a big pack of (unconscious) cheats.
But in addition to the interesting subjects (why should suicide bombers buy life insurance, for example?) the books had another huge advantage despite being on a subject not known for its high-sales and sex appeal – they were co-authored by an economist and a journalist. The marriage of excellent writing with technical expertise created a very sucessful book. They followed it up with Superfreakonomics, and were aped by countless other authors as publishers tried to cash in on economics suddenly being hot.
But what the Freakonomics books accomplished was not writing about a boring subject, but writing about an interesting subject in an interesting way. This might seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but it is amazing how many non-fiction books underestimate the need for good and entertaining writing. I have sat through books that made evolution boring or the workings of the human mind seem less interesting than watching paint dry. But when an interesting subject combines itself with some excellent writing, well, that’s when you’ll find the reading public are more than interested in the way the world works.
Take the recent trend of reading about neuroplasticity and neuroscience – with Norman Doidge’s excellent The Brain That Changes Itself riding high in the best-sellers’ lists. It combines what are seen as stuffier science and studies with a highly engaging style of writing, and the reading public have embraced it. Hot on its heels now that the brain is suddenly sexy is a plethora of well-written books for non-experts. Right now I am demolishing both Mindsight (neuroplasticity and empathy) and re-reading Delusions of Gender (gender and neuroscience, far too witty to read just once) and there’s plenty more excellent reading where these came from. This year will be the year of the brain, of reading with awe about its structure and the technical details of how it works and why it makes us who we are.
And all this despite the fact that we are being told that the reading public do not want information, they want entertainment and sparkling vampires. Stephen Hawking, for example, was told that for every equation he included in his text, A Brief History of Time, his book-sales would half and he proved that wrong. I’ve argued about this before – I believe that the reading public is smart and discerning and wants to understand the world they live in, and that the main impediment to non-fiction is not the density of the subject matter but the quality of the writing. I believe that when more subjects abandon academic prose (outside of academia) and attempt to engage their audience, that the thirst for knowledge will both surprise and delight the experts who currently believe that their subject can not be made sexy.
And right now, I believe that I’ll enjoy my books on neuroscience, and look forward to more non-fiction subjects receiving a prose make-over and letting out their attractive side.