Let’s talk about books, baby

At the start of spring, as the days lengthen and the sun emerges, conversation naturally centres on the weather. We marvel at the warmth of the sun, the beauty of the daffodils and the length of the days. But, however new the sunshine might feel, the conversation is not. It is one that is repeated in a slightly altered form when it is cold, windy, mild or hot. In Ballarat, at the end of another slightly-too-long and far-too-cold winter, you might think the weather was the only topic of conversation.

And I am hardly one to argue as I love talking about the weather as much as the next person, and by Wednesday will have shared the forecast for the weekend far and wide.

But, I wonder whether we might benefit from shifting the conversation, at least occasionally from, “How’s this sunshine?” to, “What are you reading?”

It can be surprising to witness how people light up when they’re speaking about their current or previous reads. And it is a pleasure to hear about what books friends, colleagues and acquaintances are enjoying or struggling to finish, which ones bring them joy or move them to tears, and which have taught them a lesson or led to a discovery of some kind. After all, the books that people choose and what they take away from those books can reveal much about them.

A US study suggested that taste in books, television, films and magazines correlated with certain personalities. The study asked whether participants preferred:

  1. a) Daytime talk shows, romance, cooking and religion
    b) Arts and humanities, classics, foreign films and poetry
    c) Horror, cult films and erotic novels
    d) Action and adventure, thrillers, sci-fi films and spy stories
    e) News, documentaries and nonfiction

From that information, researchers could determine the one of five personality types to which the respondents belonged. If you tended to prefer a) you are communal; b) aesthetic; c) dark; d) thrilling; or e) cerebral.

The researchers concluded that: “Entertainment preferences are not determined exclusively by age, gender, or education, but also by psychological dispositions.” Also, that: “The connections between personality and the entertainment-preference dimensions suggest that people seek out entertainment that reflect and reinforce aspects of their personalities.”

But beyond these broad genres, finding out what specifically interested someone in a book offers an opportunity for understanding, connection, and even, growth. People can reveal much about who they are and what they believe in the books that they read and love.

I listened with interest when my usually fairly impassive brother spoke with genuine enthusiasm about a book by Warren Buffett, and the billionaire’s lifestyle. Apparently, he told me, Buffett continues to live modestly, despite being able to afford any luxuries he desires. He also dedicates hours of his days to reading.

A friend told me how surprised he had been to read about the farming history of Indigenous Australians in his most recent read. He spoke about how this book had introduced him to a new way of thinking about the history he had been taught at school. Another friend raved about what they had learnt from Scott Pape’s The Barefoot Investor, and how they were learning how to manage their finances for the first time.

At work, at the school gate and at dinner parties, people can talk at length about their passion for the books of Liane Moriarty, Tim Winton or John Grisham, about how they really must start reading again or how they can’t wait to get their hands on Kate Morton’s latest. The conversation can be even better when a blockbuster arrives on the scene and almost everyone is reading, or has read, the same book. From The Dry to Gone Girl, these books are discussed and debated, with some professing their love for a book while others proclaim their indifference.

Judging by some of Facebook’s most popular book groups, plenty of others are interested in talking about books, even to strangers. The Facebook Book Club has almost 28,000 members, while Books, Blogs, Readers & Writers has more than 64,000 members.

Even celebrities are getting in on the act, forming book clubs and ‘talking’ about their recent favourites with their fans. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has a book club, as do Reece Witherspoon and Emma Watson. Florence and the Machine’s Florence Welch’s Between Two Books book club has more than 106,000 Instagram followers. Even Kim Kardashian has her own book club.

Last month, a journalist for The Medium made the case for reading books instead of engaging with the relentless news cycle – perhaps the same goes for conversation. Is there much value in marvelling again about the stupidity of politicians, the latest confronting and disorientating tragedy or this year’s rich list … or the inevitable cycles of the weather?

Can we get more personal and touch more deeply on what has recently moved or interested those we see at university, at the after-school pick up or while we wait for our coffees, by asking about what they are reading?

So, while the weather might be a topic of endless fascination, perhaps once in a while, let’s talk about books. It is a topic that is at once removed and personal, safe but revealing. We might learn something about the world or each other, or discover our next favourite book. So, what are you reading?

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