A Taxonomy of Readers

All the pictures that came up when I searched for ‘taxonomy’ were boring, so I decided to search for ‘taxidermy’ instead.

I was thinking about yesterday’s post, and I realized that my reading habits are incredibly bourgeois. That’s not a pejorative; it’s just a description. My reading habits have a distinctly middle-class and earnest feeling to them. Which made me think, what other kinds of reading habits are there? This line of thought led to the following taxonomy of readers

Mass-Market – People who read only a book or two every year and prefer to read whatever the year’s breakout book is. I imagine that they enjoy the feeling of connectedness that comes from doing something at the same time as millions of other people.

Industrial – People who consume books as if they are an interchangeable product. Once, I was like this. When I read a book I liked, I went out and tried to find twenty books that were exactly the same, so I could get exactly the same experience. I preferred longer books, because they lasted longer. And I preferred long series, because I knew I could get more of what I liked. Example: most children go through a stage like this.

Populist – Readers who distrust book reviews and the opinions of academics, but still try to read the best books that they can. Populist readers often place a lot of stock in Amazon book reviews, word of mouth, and popular vote awards. They have a strong sense of their own likes and dislikes and are willing to defend their own tastes even against the prevailing opinion. Example: many science fiction fans, and people who say that books like Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged are the equal to most of what is considered, by the establishment, to be extremely good fiction.

Academic – These readers gravitate towards books about which there is still something interesting to say. They shy away from books that too much has already been written about. Although they’re about equally interested in contemporary and classic fiction, when they read classics they tend to gravitate towards obscure writers and lesser-known works by famous authors. Example: Most book critics, bloggers, and commentators.

Hip – Very familiar with whatever writer is on everyone’s tongues. In the 90s, it was David Foster Wallace. Now, it’s George Saunders. Also familiar with the nimbus of other, less-known contemporary writers that hover in that zeitgeisty area. Example: Anyone who’s ever read a novel written by Sam Lipsyte.

Super-Hip – The person who determines what the Hip people are going to be reading. Usually conversant with the major features of English literature (the modernists, etc) and extremely conversant with what’s going on in contemporary literature. Example: Anyone who’s ever read a sentence written by Tao Lin.

Bourgeois – Those who put a lot of stock in the literary canon and disdain contemporary literature. Prefers to read “the best” of any genre. Believes anything that has gotten public notice or critical acclaim must have some positive qualities. Turns reading into a project and then blogs about the project. Often has a fascination with and love for literary quotes. The objective of high school and college education in literature is to produce bourgeois readers. Examples: I am an extreme form of this, but I would also include all the computer programmers and lawyers and doctors who very earnestly sit down to read Faulkner or Dickens in their free time.

Aristocratic – Prefers classic literature, but, even within the classics, has very particular likes and dislikes. When they find an author, they often read every work that the author has written. Example: Anyone who has ever read a published collection of a famous authors’ letters.

 

There are three standard progressions through these categories:

Industrial -> Populist -> Academic

Bourgeois -> Aristocratic

Bourgeois -> Hip -> Super-Hip

 

I consider myself a little bit of an outlier because I went from Industrial -> Populist -> Bourgeois.

Can anyone suggest any additional categories?

3 thoughts on “A Taxonomy of Readers

  1. Tristan

    Can there be a category of people who read all kinds of stuff, but they just read a chapter or two and then they’re like ‘I get it’ and never pick it up again? That’s what I do, even with books I like. It’s like, half an hour, I know what you have to say, now I’d rather play golf or whatever. I can do it with any genre, any level of quality. And I know I’m not the only one.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I do know another person like that. I don’t get it, myself. It takes me much longer than half an hour to absorb an author’s style and worldview. And even after I do, there’s still some joy from the content. As well, there are things that happen at the ends of books that can only happen at the ends of books.

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