On The Limits Of Great Conversations

Several times it has been my good (or bad) fortune to read books that sought to capture the conversations that people had concerning other books.  As someone who has spent a substantial portion of my life reading about books, writing about books, talking about books, it is natural that I should find it interesting to write about people writing and talking about books.  The length of time it takes to write any sort of longform prose nonfiction means that of necessity those who engage in such writings will view themselves as part of a great conversation and will relish the response that they get from others when those writings resonate with the reader.  In the case of The Closing Of The American Mind and Hillbilly Elegy, the works that started the conversations I read on them were books that were bestsellers from people who were both insiders and outsiders in the academic and political worlds and attracted a lot of criticism, especially from the left.  This created a situation where people desired to write books about books so as to capture for the sake of posterity the debate that was sparked by such works.

Yet it should be remembered that there is a clear limit to the interest that the wider public has in such matters.  Even works like Hillbilly Elegy and the Closing Of The American Mind have limits as bestsellers in having sold somewhere in the neighborhood of a million to two million copies or so.  It should be noted that a million copies is not a small amount.  On the other hand, in a nation of 330 million people, that means somewhat less than one percent of the population has bought the book, and probably most copies of the book (even library copies) will only be read a few times.  Does a book that has sold a million or two copies and has perhaps been read by five or ten million people mean that it is part of a conversation that everyone cares about?  Hardly.  A book that was read by thirty million Americans would only have been read by a tithe of the American population, and such a book would be an extremely popular bestseller.  Not many people read books, and for any sizable portion of the population to be familiar with any books is a sign of immense relative popularity.  It is possible that a majority of books that are published (if one includes self-publishing) may not be read by anyone at all or a few people at the most.

Obviously, there are consequences to this, and that is a limit to the extent by which any book can be said to be part of a great conversation.  Hillbilly Elegy, for example, is being turned into a movie that is supposed to be released this year.  Will the movie be profitable?  It is hard to say.  If everyone who read and appreciated the book (and that includes me, it must be admitted) goes to see the movie, the movie will make money, but perhaps not a huge amount of money depending on its costs.  It is not uncommon for popular teen/YA literature series to attract film offers because the books have been read and enjoyed by a million or more readers only to find out that virtually no one who was not a fan of the series of books ended up wanting to watch the movie, leading to film franchises being abandoned and to a fretting about the lack of commercially viable intellectual properties that one could adapt for reliable profits  As much as we may want to pretend that books about books and adaptations of books are about the quality of material, publishers and movie studios are not in the business of charity, but they are rather interested in making money, which requires an audience for what is being presented to them.  That which does not draw a sufficient audience will not continue to be offered for sale, and that which is not offered for sale will mean decreased incomes for those who wish to make a living by their pen or keyboard.

It bears some repeating that the limits of how great a conversation is depend at least in some part on how many people there are taking part in such a conversation.  In an age of great fragmentation few people pay attention to any particular thing.  And yet we can only have conversations with each other to the extent that we share common touchstones, common areas of knowledge and interest where a hint and allusion can draw a wry smile, where something can be compared profitably to something else in a way that lets others know we are in on the joke and able to comment intelligently on it.  But if few people can be bothered to read at all, and few books achieve enough acclaim and popularity to be read by a substantial body of the public, the conversations that take place within and among those books and other books written in response are only reaching a small portion of the public.  Perhaps it is an important part of the public, if obscure and unknown people like myself may be taken as important simply because we know about books and the conversations they are a part of and care about large philosophical and theological questions.  But it is still a small part of the public that is involved even in reading about debates concerning the importance of education and upward mobility for the children of Appalachia or for Americans at large, and it is only those who have read material that can be expected to comment intelligently about the existing conversation on such subjects.  It is easy for those of us who can at least pretend to ourselves and our few social media followers that we are a part of the cognoscenti to imagine that our conversations are important to the larger public, but that is rarely the case.  It would be well if we were humble about the importance of our conversations accordingly.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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