Why do we read the books we do?


You only need to walk around any library or book shop to see the vast array of literature available to read or buy. Fiction, non-fiction, comics, magazine, newspapers – not to mention the millions of stories and factual works stored on the ever-growing Internet – is readily available everywhere.

The choice of genres is also growing. Gone are the days when you simply read crime or romance, horror, fantasy or science fiction. Every genre now has a myriad of sub genres of their own. There are ghost stories, steampunk, cyberpunk, high fantasy, dark fantasy, romantic comedy, chick lit, westerns, thrillers, manga, fan fiction and much more. But why are we inclined to read one genre over another?

It is often the cover that makes you pick up a book for an initial flick through. However, even when a book attracts you visually, if on closer inspection you find the book is horror or dark suspense, and you don’t like being scared, of course you’ll never read it. Literature isn’t only about pictures after all. Though the sub-genre (or mainstream genre?) of the graphic novel could argue otherwise. Such discussion on what can be classified as what is perhaps most acutely highlighted here, and could form an entire blog on its own!

When it comes to crime and mysteries, readers often enjoy the intellectual challenge that goes alongside the reading process. To be able to solve the ‘Whodunit?’ with, or before, the detective can be very satisfying. Crime fiction is largely consumed by people who enjoy word or logical puzzles. A mystery draws you in and keeps you hanging until the end. It is hard to put such stories down because you need to know how the story ends.

Other people like a more relaxed read. A good romance or work of ‘chick lit’ will provide a satisfying read whilst giving an ending you will be happy and comfortable with. In a world where workday stresses are on the increase, there has been a rise in the number of people both reading and writing this sort of ‘feel good’ fiction. It is the journey that is important in these books – the process of two people meeting and getting together- often in ways which the reader can relate to. And it is this reliability that makes such novels so popular.

Personal preferences of genre not only differ from person to person, but are also dependent on mood. If we are having a stressful time, it is more likely we’ll read a book we’ve read before than a new one, for instance; something where we can simply enjoy the immersion of reading without having to worry about the ending. When life is going well, then we are more likely to read something more challenging.

In a Market Match survey in America in 2012 it was found that men are more likely to read non-fiction than women. The same survey saw that 55% of the women questioned read fiction regularly. Young adults were more likely to read fiction; whereas those aged 75 or older read nonfiction the most. Gender differences in reading habits have been noted in the UK as well. In 2016 The Guardian followed up on national research showing that boys, of every age, no matter the nature of the literature before them, read fewer books than girls, and that they read less thoroughly than girls. “They take less time to process the words, lazily skipping parts with abandon. And they choose books that are too easy for them, meaning they fail to move on to tougher material, it is claimed.”

The genre you read  is most likely the one you feel you can relate to most. There are so many books and so many authors because we all have varying tastes and geographical and educational backgrounds; We will all  have different views on what is or isn’t romantic, what frightens us and what makes us laugh. This is entirely a good thing, too, as we need a variety of literary genres because, as a worldwide reading community we are as wonderfully diverse as the literature available to us.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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