Americans Need to Read Better Books

December 26, 2019 Updated: December 26, 2019


The benefits of literacy to an educated culture should be obvious and are so important they can’t be overstated.

“I’m part of everything that I have read,” Theodore Roosevelt once said. If so, the United States is in trouble, at least when it comes to absorbing fiction.

According to the NPD Bookscan, a glance at the 10 best-selling books of the decade is depressing, if not troubling, such are the books’ simplicity, thematic elements, and flat characters. If the old adage, “you are what you read,” is true, based on these numbers, American adults are a sex-starved people who are drawn to psychological thrillers and only here and there hope to be inspired—all while reading books aimed at young people.

Let’s start with the top sellers. E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” series sold 34.9 million copies from 2010 through 2019 and took up the first three slots. The premise is basic and dysfunctional: The main character is a wealthy sociopath who stalks a particular virginal woman until she eventually surrenders to his deviancy and control, something she believes is actually love.

In his film review of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which was based on the book, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane writes about the book:

“The global appeal of the novel has led some fans to hallow it as a classic, but, with all due respect, it is not to be confused with ‘Madame Bovary.’ Rather, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is the kind of book that Madame Bovary would read. Yet we should not begrudge E.L. James her triumph, for she has, in her lumbering fashion, tapped into a truth that often eludes more elegant writers—that eternal disappointment, deep in the human heart, at the failure of our loved ones to acquire their own helipad.”

It’s hard to tell what’s worse in this series: the simplistic, awkward sentences or the disturbing plot and flat characters. Either way, arguably the worst part about these novels is how much Americans loved them and what that means for our society. Why read “Anna Karenina” when you can read about the handsome, charming, sociopath Christian Grey?

Next, Americans clearly valued psychological thrillers, as books in this genre took up half the list. “The Hunger Games” was fourth on the list, followed by “The Girl on the Train” (sixth), “Gone Girl” (seventh), “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (ninth), and “Divergent” (10th). While two of these were written for a young adult audience, the rest of these are psychological thrillers aimed at adults.

I thought “The Girl on the Train,” “Gone Girl,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” were well-written thrillers, and it was fascinating to see novels with dark, female protagonists gain such popularity. However, I don’t know that these works are novels that would endure the test of time, and they were quite grim, depressing, and disturbing (with the exception of “The Girl on the Train,” which ends with a glimmer of optimism).

While I also thought “The Hunger Games” was a good read and a look into what a dystopian dictatorship would look like—it certainly aided in conversations with my son about government regimes—it’s not clear to me why it would be one of the top 10 best-sellers of the entire decade. It was good, but was it that good?

Same with the “Fault in Our Stars,” which was a sweet tale of romance between two teens battling cancer. It’s a romantic, compelling tear-jerker, but again, a tale about teenagers for teenagers.

“The Help” is probably the only book on this list really worth applauding as a book for adults, that adults read, with enduring, compelling adult themes. It has an incredible plot, well-rounded, sympathetic characters, and the best part: One aspiring journalist tells the story of her attempt to battle a larger, societal stain. Still, that’s only one out of 10 books.

It’s worth noting that Hollywood adapted almost all of these books for film. This really demonstrates the power Hollywood has over perception and sales. I’m convinced there were likely better-written books this decade, but without a major film adaption, it’s up to word-of-mouth marketing and the persuasive abilities of each individual reader to gain a following, which is no competition for Hollywood’s PR machine.

It’s tempting to look at this list and despair: The most well-read novels of the entire decade were geared toward young adults or featured sociopaths or deviant relationships. The only glimmer of hope is that, according to NPD, “more non-fiction titles topped the NPD Bookscan charts in the second half of the decade than in the first half.”

In the second half of the decade, consumers pushed for “informational titles over fiction” such as “cookbooks, self-help, and politics.”

Still, it’s disappointing to see that while Americans are reading, they’re reading shallow, simplistic works geared toward people at least a decade or more younger than they are. Here’s hoping the next decade inspires Americans to read quality works of fiction that inform and inspire.

Nicole Russell is a freelance writer and mother of four. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Politico, The Daily Beast, and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter @russell_nm.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.