Reading like you write

Do you write like your favourite authors?

Over on Cam Roger’s* website, there’s a comment thread getting going on social groups and networking amongst your friends and someone raised an interesting idea; that we are the sum of a few people that we spend the most time with.

This is an idea popularised by motivational speaker Jim Rohn who argues that if you think about the five people you spend the most time with, you are probably the sum (or more accurately, the average) of those people.  Basically, you are who you know. It’s not a ground-breaking idea – we’ve all heard about the dangers of “getting in with a bad crowd” and seen many books for aspiring writers/artists/rich people that recommend surrounding yourself with successful writers/artists/rich people.

(Although, speaking as the struggling writer type myself, perhaps I should surround myself with rich people instead of writers? After all, my writer friends can come up with their own prose, but perhaps someone rich might be able to spare a few pennies for my writing. I reckon it might be beneficial for artists generally to meet less other starving artists over a bottle of homebrew and go out with more people who can shout them a bowl of soup.)

But it got me thinking – if we gravitate towards the people we want to be like, does this mean that we read the people that we most want to write like? It’s an interesting idea, that our favourite books are not so much guests on our bookshelves but a style guide to our thinking.

What about people with very varied tastes? What if you have some Jane Austen next to your copy of Mama Mia, like many women I know? I have friends who are equally at ease with easy-reading humor such as Freakonomics or wading through the thick prose of Tolkien. I enjoy the acerbic abstract brevity of Chuck Palahnuik every bit as much as the frothy levity of Bill Bryson, and I like to temper my taste in biographies with occasional forays into the fantasy worlds of Robin Hobb and George R. R. Martin.

And believe me, if I could write as well any one of them I would be a very happy – and also pretty rich. What do you think? Would you like to write like your favourite five authors? And would mixing their styles even be possible?


* For those of you thinking that name looks familiar, yes this is the same Cameron Rogers who I interviewed on this blog last year. He’s an Australian author and his blog, Wait Here for Further Instructions, is both a useful site full of information on writing and traveling and a repository of some of the strangest and funniest true stories I have ever heard. Don’t believe me? Read this one on coffin-bashing undertakers, the richest man who ever lived in a shed and the Cooktown cyclone.

Spread-sheeting the joy of reading

Spreadsheet-loving bibliophiles, I have a treat for you. Nielsen Bookscan have released a huge chunk of data on their book-sales over the last ten years, allowing us to simultaneously indulge in two of our great loves; the socially acceptable love of non-fiction books and the secretive and strange adoration of spreadsheets.

Nielsen Bookscan is the world’s largest book tracking service, and they collect transaction data directly from the tills of major book retailers. This data covers over 90% of all retail book purchases in the UK from 6,500 retailers, monitoring more than 220,000 titles selling each week. They have given us the spreadsheets which shows book sales since the same time in 1998, their top 100 books for 2010 and a further breakdown into Top 20 by type, including fiction and non-fiction hardback and paperback.  Broken down into individual worksheets, and arranged neatly with publisher, imprint and ISBN information, just waiting to be sorted and analysed and interpreted and turned into graphs.

I’ve gone all tingly just thinking about it.

I’m not the only person out there who loves spreadsheets, surely? My first response when faced with a complex question is usually to open Excel and really get graphing. This is helpful when working out budgets and complicated itineraries, but not so much when trying to decide what pub to go to.

(That said, I have one friend who once answered the question of, “Do you think they fancy me?” by carefully analysing, typing and documenting comments on blog by type and tone, and then sending through a spreadsheet with the carefully tabulated results, so I suspect there may be more number crunchers than we think out there.)

The Top-selling 100 books of all time (well, for the UK and since Nielsen records began in 1998 but that sounds nowhere near as good) can be downloaded here, via the Guardian website.

It is – even for non-number-loving-nerds – an interesting read. The Top 100 contains the usual suspects, with Dan Brown, Harry Potter and sparkling vampires taking up most of the top 10. It’s not until #20 we see the first non-fiction entry, Jeremy Clarkson’s World According to Clarkson.  Bill Bryson’s excellent Short History of Nearly Everything comes just after at #23 with more and more non-fiction poking its way in from there, including lots of cookbooks and also, somewhat depressingly, a lot of diet books.

Perhaps we listened to Delia a little too much.

Broken down into paperback and non-paperback, the non-fiction lists are even more interesting. Paperback stars include Eat, Pray, Love (there’s food again) and lots of scientific explanations, whereas their glamorous hardback cousins include far more cookbooks and biographies, suggesting that we like big glossy pictures of both our food and our celebrities. That or biographies and cookbooks make better gifts than diet books, which appear exclusively and amusingly only on the less weighty paperback list.

Of course, the data here would differ from the Australian data (which I can only dream of receiving a spreadsheet of) but it’s still an interesting snapshot of what we have been reading. If you’d asked me for my guess at the top selling non-fiction book of the last decade, I wouldn’t have guessed Clarkson. Would you? I also wouldn’t have guessed that two diet books would outsell the first cookery book and that Gillian McKeith would be in the top 30.

There is a downside to all this data, I had planned to pick out a cookbook this week but I’m now inundated by information and different titles. If only there were some way to sort all this information – oh wait, there is. To Excel,  and let the graphing begin!

Or I could just ask you all. Any recommendations for a good cookbook for an enthusiastic but imprecise chef who likes to improvise and hates having to follow long tedious lists?

…I’m going to graph it anyway. Just a little. While I am waiting for a response. Honest.