To your scattered books go

To your scattered books go**

One of the big arguments made in favor of limited copyright terms is that books (and other content) become our society’s shared culture.

We all have some awareness of Shakespeare, and Dickens, and the Wizard of Oz.


The ease of publication of digital media is disintegrating that cultural cohesiveness.

I’ve heard of many interesting TV shows…that I’ve never seen.

They are on services I don’t get…or, there are simply too many things for me to watch.

In the old days there were three networks (well, there were four, but how many of you remember Dumont?), and maybe a couple of local channels.

Now, there are hundreds of channels.

In 2006, there were effectively six big publishers of “trade books” (the kind you would buy in a bookstore…not textbooks and such). Yes, there were some others, but those six dominated the market.

Now, there are thousands of publishers (often just the author of a book)…and the output of the now Big 5 (following the merger of Penguin and Random House) is a sliver of what’s published each month.

At least, my guess is that we are fragmenting. 😉

I think that going forward, it may be much less likely that you’ll be able to have a conversation with somebody about a book you’ve both read.

I always like to try to test my hypotheses, though…

What I’m going to do here is see how familiar you are with bestsellers.

I’ll start with the current top ten bestsellers in the USA Kindle store, and the current New York Times bestselling hardback fiction.

Then, I’ll jump back to before the Kindle really established the e-book market…we’ll go back to this week in 2006.

After that, I’ll go back ten more years.

Now, I know that it’s not an apples to apples comparison, going back that far. It will be interesting to me if more people have read books on the bestseller list from twenty years ago than from the Kindle store list today. 🙂

Hmm…just looking at those lists was interesting! I could tell you what I’ve read, but I think I’ll wait until I see some of your responses.

I can see a lot of challenges to this methodology, naturally…maybe people are less likely to read a book when it first gets on the bestseller list. Maybe hardbacks tend to stay on the list longer.

Let’s go with another poll which will get your impressions:

Something occurred to me. I’m actually a lot more likely to read a book my Significant Other has read now…because we are on the same account. We sometimes read the book at the same time, or if it is in

Kindle Unlimited (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

it might not be the same time, but we might both read it.

Before the Kindle, I hadn’t read Janet Evanovich…now I do, because of book sharing. Before that, my SO would read them…and then pass them off to a sibling.

Having read them in the same family, though, isn’t the same as a society’s shared culture.

What do you think? Is the ease of digital publishing breaking up our group literary culture? If so, will that become  more true in the future? What impact might that have on society? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help!

** The post title is a play on To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first book in Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series.  

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


12 Responses to “To your scattered books go”

  1. Phink Says:

    I have not read a single one of those books in any of the polls. There are only a couple I would like to read but have not gotten to them yet. I do read some very popular books so I’m sure other dates in history would reveal ones that I have read.

    I love where the publishing industry is going. I am glad we now have more than 6 corporations deciding what gets published. Competition is great for consumers in all areas.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Phink!

      I’m also very happy to see so many more books available from such a diversity of sources. If there is a loss of shared literary culture, I’m curious about what effect that would have…I don’t know right away that it would be negative, or positive.

  2. EJC Says:

    Wow! out of all of the best seller lists I have read only one book. Interesting.

    My husband and I often read the same books because of sharing an Amazon and Audible account. However, no one on either side of our families read the same books as either of us.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, EJC!

      I suspect that the books on the bestseller lists (perhaps outside of the USA Kindle store) are there in large part because of casual readers, and that my readers may tend to be serious readers. That may have an impact.

      The USA Kindle store may be more of Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. That might be worth an analysis…how long do books tend to stay on the paper bestseller lists versus the e-book bestseller lists. It would be quite difficult to do, though. It’s easy enough for something like the NYT, but Amazon’s lists change hourly and I don’t think they tell us how long a book has been on the list.

      That is interesting about you and your husband and your family…that may be increasingly true, due to account structures.

  3. Tux Says:

    Polls do not accept votes from someone who has not read any of the books in that poll. That means that any attempts at percentages will be skewed.

    I do think that my reading habits have skewed from those of my peers, but I would argue that for me, a portion of that is from following interests. Certainly, I have had books that I only found out about via free book lists, which meant it was something others hadnt read, but as ive grown older, I read more nonfiction, particularly history books, how to books, etc., that none of my real life friends would ever pick up, simply because we have very different interests. Back when I was in school, I tended to read more fiction, and popular books when I was reading for fun because I had my fill of nonfiction from class readkngs and such.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tux!

      I deliberated over including an 11th “none of the above” choice (and a 12th “I don’t know” choice…many people aren’t sure which books they’ve read). I’ve mentioned before that I know it can be frustrating to not be able to affirmatively participate in a poll.

      However, I don’t think it skews the percentages not to include them…and technical limitations made it seem to me that there was more of a risk of error including them.

      In these polls, I can’t set up mutually exclusive groups if I allow multiple answers. In other words, I can’t say, “If someone picks ‘none of the above’, they can’t also pick one or more of the other choices.” With the small number of responses I expect, that could introduce some real errors. I did try to set up a separate poll for each question with the single answer of, “I have read none of the current USA Kindle store bestsellers listed above” (for example), but it won’t allow a single answer poll.

      In terms of the non-fiction part of your comment…I think it’s probably true that most popular non-fiction books have smaller audiences than popular fiction books. However, I also suspect that e-books will further divide that market.

  4. Edward Boyhan Says:

    On none off these polls is there an option for “none of the above” — so for me (save for one poll), I can’t vote. If you went back 20 years, or just asked if one was even aware of the title, then it might mean something. I suspect your total counts are going to be too low to have any meaning.

    IMO books (novels) have not been much a part of our “shared culture” for a long time now. In university courses looking at the modern American novel, they mostly stop in the 1940’s (very occasionally into the 50’s). Books aren’t what binds us anymore. Ask instead about movies or TV shows — that’s where our modern cultural heritage comes from.

    Or maybe comic books (:grin). A hundred years from now very few of the books published in the last 75 years will even be remembered, or thought to have any lasting significance.

    Disintegration if any was in train long before eBooks came along: the technological changes that matter are movies and TV. I don’t think our shared culture is disintegrating — it’s just that the sources from which the culture derives have changed. .

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Every data point has meaning. 😉 It’s certainly harder to project anything based on smaller sample sizes…but even a single response to a question isn’t meaningless.

      Harriet Jones (played by Penelope Wilton): “Is it important?”
      The Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston): “Everything’s important.”
      World War Three episode of Doctor Who
      screenplay by Russell T. Davies

      Being aware of a title is very different from having read it. The Big Five are likely to continue to do some advertising in old media, which can increase visibility, whereas independents may use just new media and what I call “word of mouse”. The Big 5 will use both…

      I did go back 20 years. 🙂 The last poll with titles is from 1996.

      I’d disagree with you on novels and shared culture…although that’s in part because they get adapted into movies and TV shows, as you suggest. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Gone Girl are three examples where I would guess that, if brought them up on a mass public transit vehicle (I would say BART car locally), I would guess that something more than half of the people would have heard about it, and at least 10% would likely have read it. I think it would not be wildly dissimilar to a question about, say, House of Cards or The Big Bang Theory. However, if you asked about Game of Thrones, the number of people who had actually seen it might be much lower, despite some pretty good popular culture referencing. It goes along with what I’m saying about the fragmentation.

      I also think that many of the books published in the past 75 years will be well-remembered…and digitally “still in print”. I’ll go back to Harry Potter as an example. However, I think for books published in the last year or two, that’s less likely, and may become even less likely going forward, due to the fragmentation I’m postulating.

  5. Kari M Says:

    On any poll, I’d suggest you have an option for none. I haven’t read any of these books, so I can’t take the poll. Which may not help when you’re trying to see if shared/not shared books are part of a cultural fragmentation.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Kari!

      You can see my response to Tux for some of my other perspective on that in this particular case.

      I’ll also say that I considered all of the questions as one poll, really, since I’m looking to compare responses. That’s one reason I made sure to include a question at the end that everybody could answer.

  6. alanchurch Says:

    This is to phink, who responds above, and off topic. Last year they was a discussion here about the reason for the Civil War. Phink said it was over state’ rights and I said it was over states’ rights to hold slaves. He or she said that was not true without explaining. Since then I have found that the seceding states in their documents of secession stated very clearly that the war was over their right to hold slaves, it being necessary to their commerce. Some also spoke of how beneficial it was to the inferior black race. There are also speeches by confederate notables about how the war was to be fought over slavery. This article explains:

  7. bfree2read Says:

    Not surprised that I had no matches to the best seller lists. However, if one is to review the list of best selling authors it may have had different results. I am more likely now to “discover” new authors than in the past. Some have gone on to become very popular (Andy Weir for The Martian). Before the Kindle I read more non-fiction but now read more fiction and delighting in finding new authors in mystery, sci-fi, history, and other genres.

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