How much do you ever really know about your workmates? Perhaps their daily coffee order. Maybe their favourite Netflix series. While we might spend a big chunk of our waking hours with our colleagues, we often know little about them.
However, last week, a simple activity revealed to me more about my co-workers than they might have realised. To mark The Australian Reading Hour, I asked some of my workmates to list their five favourite books so that I could post them on my organisation’s blog.
Some chose science fiction, while others listed the stories of their childhood. Some clearly enjoyed humour in their books, and others stuck to the classics. Jim Davis’s Garfield books were mentioned, and The Secret History was one of the few books that appeared twice.
One thing that was certain was that most people did not stray far from the genres they preferred. Those who liked chick lit LOVED chick lit. Those who liked the classics LOVED the classics. Many were passionate, if diverse, in their interests.
It made me wonder how much book choices reveal about their readers. Is there something that ties science fiction lovers together? Do romance readers have anything in common? How about those who are faithful to the classics?
Oscar Wilde drew a connection between character and book choices when he said:
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines who you will be when you can’t help it.”
A study carried out by the University of Texas controversially suggested that taste in books, television, films and magazines correlated with certain personalities.
The study asked whether participants preferred:
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 reported 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.”
However, how does this research sit with the theory that certain reading choices can shape personality, rather than be shaped by it? A study in 2013 revealed that reading classics increases empathy, while popular fiction or non-fiction books do not have the same impact. Apparently, this difference is a result of differing standards of character development, with classic literature featuring more complex, well-developed characters than other types of fiction, which affects the reader’s ability to empathise.
This study suggests that it could be the reading itself that influences personality, not just the choices the reader makes.
Another factor that has been revealed to have some influence over the books that we choose to read is gender, with men and women tending to vary in their taste in books. Men are more likely to read history, biographies and memoir and science fiction, while women prefer mystery, thriller and crime, romance and other fiction.
Of course, as in any generalisation, there are many, many exceptions. Yet, even anecdotally, in relation to the men and women I know, this contains some truth, and I have written about the variation in literary choices between men and women in more depth in the past.
So, what about me? I love to read the classics, and often rely on literary prizes to determine what I will read next. My grandmother, a school librarian, and mother played a significant role in introducing me to these books, handing me the works of Donna Tartt, John Fowles and Norman Mailer in those secondary school years in which a reader is so malleable.
But during holidays or between classics, I prefer to read a book with a cover that is hot pink and might feature a picture of a huge shoe, shopping bag or diamond ring. And I can’t go past one of Alexander McCall Smith’s simple, soothing The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
Recently, I picked up a discarded copy of one of Liane Moriarty’s novels, usually filed under the vast and diverse genre of ‘chick lit’, and found it addictively readable and indisputably clever.
For me, and perhaps for others, it is often a case of environment and opportunity guiding my reading choices, rather than personality alone. A range of factors such as education, environment and availability of a certain genre of books can all impact on our reading habits.
Clearly, there are many different reasons why certain people prefer certain books. However, on the whole, reading is such a personal and solitary pastime that it would just be contrary to suggest that personality doesn’t have some role in our selection.
Regardless of whether my colleagues’ book choices revealed their inner selves, or whether taste in books is as fluid as their daily brew, it was fascinating to get an insight into another aspect of their lives, beyond the professional and everyday, through their reading habits.