Dispatch from the Borders-Land

March 4, 2010 | 6 books mentioned 13 5 min read

coverThe literary world, and I speak here primarily of its online incarnation, does some things really well. We chew on abstract issues like why literature matters, what counts as art, and how to navigate the writing life. What we don’t do as well is consider “average” or “real” readers, the people who subsidize most of the book production in the country. This wouldn’t be a big deal if we simply left them alone. (Not that I’m advocating this strategy.) But these people come up all the time, if only by proxy: we chuckle at Dan Brown’s unit sales or snipe at HarperCollins’s “It” imprint, all without necessarily engaging with the readers behind these trends.

So, late on a late December Friday, I decided to try something different: I headed to a mall-bound Borders and asked 37 customers about their relationship to books. I realize my approach has its own problems (sample size, anyone?), but it offers something others can’t—readers speaking in their own voices.

Don’t be fooled by the Seattle’s Best Coffee and all those overstuffed chairs: Borders is not a great place to talk books, mostly because, in my experience, doing so requires weeks of answering machines and unrequited emails—all to secure the Borders Group’s tepid “yes” and a two-hour time limit.

At least I didn’t have much territory to canvass. In the last year, especially, Borders has flailed about for a business model—like Barnes & Noble, it’s now looking to lose its mall locations—and one new initiative has been Borders Ink, a teen-themed sub-store. If the Borders I visited were laid out like the back of a paperback book, the bar code would be checkout area; the author photo would be the coffee shop; and the three blurbs would be music, movies, and Borders Ink and its mass of Twilight merchandise. (Does any celebrity look more like his plastic figurines than Robert Pattinson?) The paperback’s plot summary—maybe 30 percent of the space—would be the tables and shelves of books.

My first interview ended up being my favorite. Mary Anne, an older woman with red clogs and a kind face, tells me that “reading is a real passion of mine.” Her favorite author is Diana Gabaldon, and Mary Anne likes to let the TV hum in the background as she reads (or rereads) 10 to 12 books of historical fiction per week. “Books put me right in the moment,” she says. “The story, the characters, the period stuff.” (Dan Brown elicits an “eh”—he’s “outlandishly far-fetched,” in her nice phrase.)

I start every interview by asking people what they read, coming across all the names the bestseller lists would suggest: Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Mitch Albom, Steve Berry and James Rollins, Stephen King (“The cheeseburger of American lit,” as one Borders employee puts it), Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, and plenty more I hadn’t heard of. (I confess to writing Diane Gabeldern? in my notes.) Bob, an older man in a grubby New York Giants hat, gives the same one-word answer to “What do you read?” and “Why do you read?”: “mystery.” Another guy admits he reads “whatever’s in the airport.”

Most people, though, classify their reading tastes as “eclectic.” Kelly, a young English major, reads Shakespeare and Jane Austen for “inspiration” and “this stuff” (she gestures at the Borders Ink sign) for “relaxation.” But where Kelly seems genuinely eclectic, others invoke the descriptor simply because they aren’t in the habit of talking about books. “I’ll read anything” is the easiest answer to questions you don’t regularly think about, and, when pressed for specifics, most of the people I talked to either reaffirmed their eclecticism or settled on a sub-category—yes, romance, that’s it. All of them lacked a ready vocabulary for stuff like style, technique, or genre.

People were more articulate on why they read, which is also, of course, a genre-inflected question. Beth, a mom loading up on chapter books, reads to learn something. “I didn’t pay too much attention in school,” she says, “so I like to read about our nation’s history.” Ted, who sticks to sports, demands books on current events—ideally someone “with a checkered past.” Tom relied on Ian Fleming to survive his New York City commute; he’s got a different job, now, and “it’s been harder to find the time.”

Renee, a bubbly twentysomething, says she reads “all kinds of stuff”—David Sedaris is a favorite—but also cops to a Twilight addiction. Just don’t ask her about the movies: “The books are so much more horrifying. With movies, you can only feel by seeing. With a book, your imagination does the work.”

This is an idea I hear again and again—the idea that, more than any other medium, books let you “put your own spin on things” and “escape from the real world,” in the words of Stephanie, a college student. Leah and Tammy, two moms in the Nicholas Sparks section who don’t appear to know each other but immediately begin swapping stories about reading after their kids fall asleep, agree that books offer a unique, imaginative escape. Cheryl, a middle-aged woman, enjoys novels steeped in “criminology and anthropology.” Books provide her with “details and depth that the TV shows just can’t match.”

Cheryl also stresses that she tries to remain faithful to her favorite authors. “I just love the way she writes,” she says of Patricia Cromwell*. Most of my conversations were similarly author-centric. (At least as it pertained to novelists; not a single person named a journalist or historian.) When I asked people if they attend author readings, though, I got the weirdest stares. I think you could make a pretty solid argument that these readers have a healthier connection to their authors (and to their art) than do more literary audiences.

But this brings up another question: How else do the people I talked to interact with the book world? Renee subscribes to Entertainment Weekly and reads its page of book reviews. Beth, a fan of “mysteries and romances,” reads the New York Times Book Review “religiously.” And… that’s it. Mary Anne watches the bookish segments on CBS’s Sunday Morning, but she distrusts professional critics because “they don’t look at the story, which matters to me. Besides, they’re too worried about trends.”

covercoverNo one else seeks out any more extensive book coverage, online or off. Those who do surf the web stick to authors’ official sites or to those of Borders or Barnes & Noble. Only one woman mentions Amazon; a couple of people bring up used-book stores or warehouse club chains. When I ask how they learn about new books or authors, people point to browsing book stores and seeking out “if you like X, you’ll really like Y” recommendations from the staff. (I should add that the Borders staff I talked to, while universally helpful and kind, were not exactly the literary equivalent to the cast of High Fidelity.) The biggest driver of book sales seems to be word-of-mouth. Stephanie is currently reading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked because her sister gave it to her. And let’s give the last word to Mary Anne: “I always buy books for everyone for Christmas—especially for my six grandchildren.”

On one of the sinks in the Borders’ bathroom, I found someone’s forgotten Christmas list, printed out and water-stained:

Urban Outfitters gift card
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Where the Wild Things Are Stuff
indie rock CDs

The list went on for a full page. It even included two books: Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy and Charles Bukowski’s Dangling in the Tournefortia. Point is, the people I talked to might not live for books, but they still live with and through them.

*Update: Paul Constant, the estimable Books Editor at The Stranger, emailed to let me know that Cheryl was almost certainly speaking of Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling crime writer, and not Patricia Cromwell, whom I appear to have invented. Sigh. I hope it’s clear that my heart was always in the right place.

[Image credit: Kevin Dooley]

is writing a book about presidents and their books. You can find more of his work at craigfehrman.com.


  1. I find it sad that most people browsing books at Borders read the equivalent of fast food…

  2. The part about the frequent answer “I’ll read anything” , then having to push and prod for a real answer…. I couldn’t help but think about Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin.

    I love that you might have helped Leah and Tammy with a book-friendship. Who cares if they are “fast food” books? At least people are reading. Reading is much much better than no reading. Even people who mostly read bubble gum fiction will probably give something meatier a try if recommended by a friend.

  3. For online news and reviews of books, you could point them to book blogs (I know that there’s a whole directory or database out there somewhere, but typing in book blogs to Google is an easy way to start) or websites like goodreads, Librarything, etc.

  4. I agree with Cindy, I think any reading is good reading. While I personally am not a Nicolas Sparks person there are a lot of books in the “fast food” sections that are amazing reads. I loved Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, for example, and you’ll find that on the Bestseller table right next to the Notebook. And fast food readers, browsing fast food, will find those gems of the bestsellers more easily than I could.

  5. Reading is reading, yes, but most of those people will never move out of their N. Sparks, S. Meyer, J. Patterson spheres.

    Eating is eating, but people who only eat fast food will probably die before those who eat well.

    Sex is sex, but when a child is involved . . . .

    Bumper sticker slogans don’t negate fact that bad writing is bad writing. People who read books from the metaphysical section shouldn’t be patted on the back. It’s like saying Bill Gates is one of us because he once worked for someone else.

  6. Honestly, what should people be reading? Should they be reading punishing crap like Dave Eggers? Literary books are praise by critics and reviled by everyday readers because style matters more than story. An author doesn’t deserve to be read, they need to create something that people want to read. I am not saying that creating a book for the widest possible audience is the goal. But people don’t need to prove how smart they are by reading a book by an author trying to prove how smart he or she is.

    I doubt I will ever read a book by Lev Grossman again either. He wrote a literary fantasy novel that received national press and was well written in the prose sense, but poorly plotted and shallow in the end. There are many authors out there writing much better books, but his “grown up Harry Potter” received a lot of attention when they story was a shallow homage to better written classics. He has proved to me that he isn’t worth reading and I have told my friends not to bother.

    As for books and authors that I will recommend, I love and wait for every book that Nick Hornby writes. I occasionally pick up Stephen King book when I like the premise and think it won’t be too scary. I’m waiting to read the final book in The Wheel of Time series. I will never pick up another Joshua Ferris book and I doubt I will ever pick up another Kurt Vonnegut book either.

    Stephen King can be thrilling, Nicolaus Sparks touching, and Patricia Cornwall intriguing, though I have never read the latter two. I have often heard that best selling authors may not be the best writers, but they do at least one thing very well that draws in their readers. Even I knock the schlock that Sparks writes, but I respect him more than the broccoli in the literary genre that no one really wants to read.

  7. As of yesterday, Borders Bookstore did nationwide layoffs. They have not told the media, dragging their feet. This company did layoffs on the same date they laidoff 742 employees last year(really awful). Some stores were spared due to already skeleton crew but most did lose a team member from upper-management. Mainly their Training Supervisor. I have no doubt this company will go under.

  8. Is it possible she was speaking of Pat Cromwell? Just because a writer isn’t on the New York Times list of best sellars does not mean they are not worthy of mention or have been read and admired by others.

  9. Hi, Pat. Thanks for commenting (and reading!). I’m pretty sure that, given her interest in “criminology and anthropology,” Cheryl meant Patricia Cornwell. But it would take a better reporter than I to know for sure.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.