My friend Peter sent me a rather interesting link a few days ago: Books That Make You Dumb. The methodology is rather simple: Go to Facebook, download the top ten most popular books by college, look up the average SAT/ACT score for the various colleges, and plot the data on a chart. (The creator of the chart acknowledges that correlation != causation.)
Some of the trends are rather interesting.
1. The Holy Bible scores about 150 points lower than regular-flavor Bible, and 180 points lower than the Book of Mormon. I have ideas on why colleges in which the top-ranked books include The Holy Bible would indicate a lower average SAT score than colleges that list The Bible, but The Book of Mormon? I have no theories on that. I’m just intrigued.
2. A Time to Kill scores about 60 points lower than John Grisham in general, which is very amusing.
3. Books classified as Science Fiction and Classics dominate as the average SAT score goes up. This didn’t surprise me—white nerds, who are more likely to apply to top-tier colleges, are more likely to be exposed to and to love SF/F and Old White Dude fiction. I’m not entirely sure why The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is classified as SF, though—I would’ve classified it as Terrible New Age Pap myself. (No, I’m not terribly fond of Coelho’s work—too squishy for my tastes.) However, many other classifications in this chart puzzle me—Life of Pi is Philosophy instead of Contemporary Fiction?
4. The presence of Dystopian Fiction as its own classification in this chart is fascinating to me.
5. “I Don’t Read” outranks some amazing and amazingly literary books (The Color Purple, Fahrenheit 451, Their Eyes Were Watching God), street lit and erotica. Overwhelmingly, the bottom 12 spots are occupied by books written by and for African Americans. This says something interesting about the state of institutional prejudice, I think.
6. Zane has the honor of occupying three of the bottom 10 spots—in fact, the only three erotica classifications on this list are due to Zane.
And Zane brings me to something I’ve been pondering for the past few days. Peter, while discussing the results with me, couldn’t believe that people actually listed erotica (especially what was, in his opinion, very poorly-written erotica) among their favorite books with no shame whatsoever. An argument about whether or not we should feel embarrassed about the books we love took a left turn, and we found ourselves talking about the different ways we read, and that was when I clarified for myself, for the first time ever, the process of reading pornographically.
I’m not talking about the way I read porn—or at least, not exclusively. See, I don’t have “favorite porn writers” so much as I do “favorite scenarios.” The relatively few times I seek out written porn, very little is bad enough to shock me out of its intended purpose. I’m reading for an orgasm, not literary quality. And then I realized that I don’t just utilize this method for reading porn; I do this for certain types of genre fiction, too, though for somewhat different types of pay-off.
And then last weekend, when I listened to the Seattle Symphony play video game music themes, I came to realize several different things that helped flesh out this basic premise.
A lot of the music we listened to was mediocre. Most of it blurred together, in fact, partly because the majority of the program drew from RPGs for 32-bit systems released in the last 7 years or so. (Look! another stirring theme involving harps, airy synths and pan flutes!) Some of the music, however, perked my interest—the bits of music from Sonic, for example made me grin, and I felt 14 years old all over again. By far the most popular pieces were the themes for Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda; people actually hooted and whistled for those.
That was when I realized that the key to the enjoyment of this symphony was largely associative. All things being equal, the extent to which I enjoyed any particular piece of music from that concert was directly proportional to how much I’d played the game myself, and since the vast majority of the program involved games I’d never played (when it comes to video games, I mostly want to play games in which I get to beat people up under the guise of a sumo wrestler whose superpower is Slapping the Shit Out Of You Really Really Fast—I’m of the Mashing Buttons Randomly While Spewing Profanities school of video game playing), I was able to focus on the music, and found most of it kind of schmaltzy. The pieces I enjoyed, however, had the weight of positive associations going for them—all the fun hours I spent bouncing an Italian plumber’s head against boxes with question marks on them, or rolling a tiny blue hedgehog at insanely fast speeds to collect gold coins. Essentially, I was bringing as much, if not more, into the music as it was providing to me.
And I realized that the same applied to reading pornographically. I’ve heard some authors talking about how, when it comes down to it, most people, when they read for entertainment, read for plot and not for writing style. However, I’d argue that much of the time, we’re not even reading for plot—lots of wildly popular books feature inconsistent, silly or downright confusing plots. We’re reading for scenarios. We’re reading for the pay-off, the money shot (the boy gets the girl, or the boy solves the mystery, or the boy saves the world, or the boy gets an orgasm); we need only the barest outline from the author, and we supply much of the rest. Which is essentially a restatement of sorts of reader response criticism, but we’ll pretend that I’m being all clever and (kind of) original here, eh?
(Incidentally, this is part of the reason why written pornography works much more effectively for me—almost embarrassingly so, really—compared to movies or pictures. Written porn has to be pretty damn vile or poorly-written to shake me out of my fantasy, because my brain is supplying most of the necessary details, and I can selectively ignore the vast majority of any unappealing elements. I can’t ignore the details in a movie or a photo, however, because they’re right there—the unattractive actors, the atrocious acting, the non-existent production values.)
Interestingly enough, the genres in which I do most of this sort of reading are fantasy, romance and, well, porn. Pirate romances? Romances with cross-dressing protagonists? Fantasy novels featuring dragons? Books about a scrappy group of rag-tag misfits saving the world? HELL. FUCKING. YES. I almost never read pornographically when it comes to literary fiction, science fiction, mysteries or horror. I’m not sure what that says about me—or about the genre of fiction.