A female tuna lays about 6 million eggs, but on average only two of them will grow to maturity. I have some idea of what those odds mean. At The Washington Post, we receive about 150 books a day, but we review fewer than 20 a week. It’s literary carnage on a scale only Mother Nature could comprehend.
Recently, as I stood amid the piles of hopeful, mostly doomed galleys in our Book Room, my eyes fell on a new paperback edition of “The Myth of Choice” (Yale, $16), by Kent Greenfield. He got me thinking — again — about how we choose which books to read.
A law professor at Boston College, Greenfield explores our naive assumptions about free will and the way we make choices. It turns out that we’re not the rational, well-informed consumers we like to think we are. We don’t even really know what we want. Entering a store packed with books provides a particularly overwhelming set of choices. Is it any wonder we keep reaching for another Tom Clancy?
Speaking by phone from his office, Greenfield told me that “we like to have all these options, but we don’t take advantage of them. There are 45,000 different items in a typical grocery store, but most people buy the same things over and over. When my wife and I were redoing our kitchen, we went to choose paint colors, and it was paralyzing.”
In other words, offered 50 shades of grey, we fall back on the same old bestsellers in a few primary colors. When it comes to Cocoa Krispies and interior decorating, our lazy habits may not matter much, but when we’re shopping for books, those decisions can shape our minds.
“This is something that, as readers, we have to come to terms with,” Greenfield warns. “Life is short. There’s no way you can read even the good books. Too many choices can overwhelm us, and make us worse decision makers.”
So is there any hope for the dazed shopper confronted by stacks of “Barefoot Contessa,” “Flight Behavior” and five new titles about the reality of heaven?
“The book cover design really makes a difference,” Greenfield says. “There’s an attractiveness bias. People on juries believe attractive witnesses more than they believe unattractive witnesses.” Apparently, we’re just as easily persuaded by good-looking dust jackets. “You can’t know a book by its cover,” he admits, “but you can sell a book by its cover.” His own book boasts a witty photograph of a goldfish swimming among seven hooks dangling into its little bowl — just the kind of cover that might convince a buyer that “The Myth of Choice” is fun and engaging (which it is).
“When I look for books, I hardly ever just browse,” Greenfield says. “I pay attention to people I respect. I look for books by people I’ve enjoyed. But what that means is that you’re hardly ever out of your comfort zone. People are pretty static in that respect. They seek out and see the world according to what we call ‘confirmation bias’: You look for things that confirm what you already believe. You read books that agree with you, books that coincide with your view of the world. And if you only depend on people who are just like you to tell you what you might like to read, you’ll lose out.”
To my mind, he’s just put his finger on the limitation of book recommendations from Facebook and Goodreads.
Greenfield says we need to make sure we’re not choosing titles in a way that counteracts the real benefits of literature. “One of the most important things about a novel is to stretch our world view and help us develop empathy — intellectual empathy and connection with other people. We have to make conscious decisions in order to make our reading lives benefit. For my money, the best way is to listen to experts. Maybe this is a call for the revival of book reviews.”
Ah, now there’s a choice I can get behind.
Ron Charles is the fiction editor at The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.