How we read has always been at least partially connected to how we interact with the world, whether it be the political climate, the growth of new technology, or the current social status of popular culture. Reading itself was only feasible for the masses after the 15th century invention of the printing press and the novel didn't make a rise until literacy spread and free time was more ample in the 18th and 19th centuries, after significant technology advances.
So, if the growth of technology brought about more novels, and the sprout of new genres was a result of film and a pop culture-centric society in the 20th century, what effects have the recent growths in technology had on what and how we read today?
The Non Fiction Effect
It starts with the rise of non-fiction as the predominantly popular choice in bookstores around the country. The top 10 non-fiction books on the bestseller list always outsell the top 10 fiction books, save an occasional mega-seller. Books remain on the bestseller list for weeks upon weeks as word of mouth carries the wisdom of a particularly popular non-fiction release. Similar instances in the fiction list are much rarer.
Why has non-fiction become so much more popular than fiction though? It is a question that publishers and booksellers have been trying to unravel for quite some time now, and they have yet to come to a real consensus about it yet. However, we can make educated guesses.
Largely, I feel it is a result of the information age we now live in. While non-fiction has been popular for quite some time, it has truly come into its own as the Internet becomes a part of our daily lives. We want to know everything we can about the world, with information at our fingertips on every topic in existence. At one time, it required a library card or an expensive set of dated encyclopedias to look up the indigenous lifestyles of Eastern Australia. Now it takes thirty seconds and a computer with Internet access, something more than 80% of the US population has ready access to.
More than 80 million blogs and 90 million daily blog readers make up a vast network of current information about millions of topics, lives, and events. Non-fiction is the measure of our lives and we are addicted to it.
And How Fiction Adjusts
So, what can publishers do to combat the slowly declining interest in the Great American Novel (and its lesser, lower quality cousins). The answer lies in a hybrid of the two. More fiction publications are released every year that create a blend between the real and imaginary. Even now, authors whose fiction works, based on true events are being morphed and translated into non-fiction accounts.
James Frey is a good example of what can happen to a non-fiction story, amped up with fictitious elements to keep the story interesting while maintaining the "memoir" label to sell more books. Whether or not it was dishonesty on the part of the author or the publisher will remain unknown for some time, but the effect is apparent.
Another recent trend in publishing is the release of historical documents related to famous fictitious pieces. In September, the original manuscript of The Hobbit was released in an annotated double volume. The original vision of Tolkien is preserved in a 900+ page double volume of notes, character sketches and additional scenes that no one besides the Tolkien family and their editors have ever read.
This fictional work, along with the scholarly, non-fiction edifices included by the new publisher have made it possible to sell yet more copies of a legendary best selling fiction novel, this time preying upon the non-fiction lovers.
Another recent release that did the same thing was the first time publication of the Jack Kerouac manuscript for "On the Road". For the first time, readers can enjoy the unedited scroll as it was originally written by Kerouac in 1951 and published in 1957. While there are no non-fiction elements to the release, it does give a never before seen insight into the creative process of one of the truly great American authors.
As we become more informed through the easy access of information, we also become more in need of a connection to what we read. We want to know that the stories we digest involve us, have something to do with our lives. By showing the process of the writer, volumes such as The Hobbit Collection or the On the Road Scroll reveal more of the inner workings of two of the most important writers of the 20th century than any novel they wrote did on its own. While, these releases are in part due to the popularity of the original novels, they also accentuate just how important it is for the reader to be involved and most of all informed about what they are reading.