Columns > Published on July 8th, 2020

Tricking People Into Diverse Reading

The online internets are filled with diverse book lists right now. This is a good thing.

In an attempt to get people to read more and to read a wider variety of authors and books, I’m suggesting a new tactic. Not an “instead of” tactic, another one. The same way a golf bag has a bunch of golf clubs in it, you can use a bunch of methods to point people to new books. Like golf clubs in a golf bag, different methods are better in different situations. I think. I don’t really know how golf works. I assume a sand wedge is for hitting a ball out of the sand, but the other clubs don’t have convenient, explanatory names like “the really far from the hole iron,” so I get pretty lost outside of sand wedge.

These methods are intended for the people who are not currently “on your side.” They probably don’t agree that Ta-Nehisi Coates is right, and they might not know who he is. They probably didn’t think Get Out was a fascinating meditation on black bodies wrapped in a horror movie. They may be fairly distant from your values, or they may be close but in need of a small nudge.

What I’m suggesting is a goal-oriented approach for promoting diverse books in order to get a certain subset of people in the door, people who maybe don’t agree with some causes, don’t agree with some groups, and they’re not going to pick up books that address any of this stuff.

Just because it bears repeating: I’m not saying you have to do any of this or attempt to reach any of these people. If doing any of these things would violate your principles, then don’t do them! You do you.

What I’m suggesting, for anyone interested: let’s talk about traps.

Where We Get It Wrong

We’re going to start with common methods that don’t work on the target audience. Keep in mind, I’m saying these methods don’t work if your goal is to reach some middle-ground people. These methods are great at accomplishing other things. A mouse trap is great at trapping a mouse, but if you’re after roaches, you’ll need a different trap.

Every effective trap has three basic elements: It has bait, it tricks the mark into entering voluntarily, and the mark does not perceive the trap until it’s too late to escape.

Let's talk about where our current methods miss the mark. 

Telling People To Read Books To Accomplish A Goal

The easiest way to blow it, when trying to elevate another voice, is getting caught up in making sure you get credit for doing so.

For example, “Read These Books To Become Culturally Aware.”

Or, handing a book to your cousin and saying, “Read this so you can be less terrible.”

Right now some of you are saying, “But I love those book lists and wouldn’t have found Author Z without them!” That’s a sure sign that you’re not likely of the group we’re concerned with here. Those lists and suggestions are booming, they have an audience, and you’re it.

The biggie here is that nobody likes to be told what to do. If you need proof of that, all you need to do is realize that wearing a mask, which protects you from a terrible virus, has become something people rally against simply because they were told to do it. If people won’t protect themselves from POSSIBLE DEATH because they were told to do so, what are the chances someone will read a book because of an implied demand?

You can’t attach a written note to a fish hook that says, “Bite this to become my dinner.” That’s not what the fish wants, that’s what you want. A demand makes for lousy bait.

Shouting at People

Hey, it feels good. Damn good. So damn good you could just...yum...WHOA, sorry, lost track there. It feels good to shout at people, but eyes on the prize.

Referring to goals here, if your goal is to change someone’s mind about the act of reading a book, shouting at them is counterproductive.

You’re not going to debase someone to the point that they give in and read bell hooks. It’s not going to happen. At best, they’ll walk away SAYING they’ll read the book, and every time they see a bell hooks on the shelf somewhere, they’ll remember you, that person who was a jerk to them.

Shouting is a form of forcing compliance. You don’t care how the person feels about what they’re doing so long as they do it. Compliance is not an effective method for getting someone to read a book. If it was, we were all assigned books in school, and we’d all be literate as hell. If compliance worked for readers, the social pressures in a book club would mean you read every book, every time. And did you?

Shouting doesn’t make the person think they’re doing something by choice, which is necessary for an effective trap. 

The Equation

You have to take yourself out of the equation.

I’m going to keep referring to the goal: leading people, who are not predisposed to read broadly, and are perhaps resistant, into more diverse reading habits.

So, your goal, as book pusher, is not to make your circle of online friends think you’re wise. It’s not to install yourself as a cultural, social, or political expert. It’s not to present your system of values by listing things that encompass and inform those values. It’s not even to promote books as therapeutic or empathy-building tools. It’s not to get retweeted.

The easiest way to blow it, when trying to elevate another voice, is getting caught up in making sure you get credit for doing so.

Being self-involved almost always means your mark will slip out of the trap. It’s why James Bond gets away. The self-involved villain has to give a soliloquy instead of snapping the trap closed. You're not the villain here, so don't act like one. Set the trap, watch the person walk in, and don't pause to tell someone how good you are at trapping. 

What To Do Instead

To review the three basic elements, a trap has bait, it tricks the mark into entering voluntarily, and the mark does not perceive the trap until it’s too late to escape.

Each of these methods presents a more effective trap.

Bait-First Approach

When you go fishing, and when you’re thinking about bait, you can’t think about what YOU like to eat. You have to think about what the fish likes. Bait the hook with an entire Wendy’s Double Stack and you’ll waste not only a burger, but a whole lotta time.

Tom Spanbauer’s In The City of Shy Hunters is an incredible experience of a book that related the AIDS epidemic to me in a human, tangible way. I love this book. It’s my all-time favorite. My desert island book. The book I keep a spare copy of in my trunk because I’d hate to end up somewhere with nothing to read.

I also recognize that it’s a dense, literary book that is not going to appeal to everyone, and it’s not going to speak to everyone. It has graphic depictions of sex between men, it depicts a powerful gay black man, and cops are villains. It’s my favorite book, and I don’t consider these “problems.” I recognize that the reader we’re talking about today is likely to be repelled by these elements, and if they’re repelled, they won’t receive the message I’m hoping they’ll absorb.

To someone outside the fold, I might suggest My Pet Virus by Shawn Decker. Decker contracted HIV in the 80s from a blood transfusion. He’s not gay, but he does talk with gay men and has found a lot of support from the gay community. If I’m talking to someone who doesn’t read widely, this story is probably more easily digested.

I know, it feels like I’m watering down the idea. And I am. Because my intent isn’t to present the most stirring, harrowing version of the story. My intent is to get someone to take a step in that direction. Someone who isn’t me.

The bait is meant for the mark, not the trapper. Remember that when you’re suggesting a book. 

The Voluntary Approach

Ronnie Coleman is one of my favorite people. If you haven’t seen the documentary about his life, you need to. Required viewing. Or, read his book, Yeah, Buddy! Also excellent.

Ronnie finished college, graduating cum laude with a degree in accounting, and he started looking for accountant jobs. He applied all over, and he didn’t get any bites from accounting firms. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that in 1984, even as a top student fully prepared to work in accounting, being a black man with a Louisiana accent wasn’t helpful when it came to getting a gig.

Ronnie doesn’t really speculate about why he didn’t get hired. Ronnie tells readers he didn’t get a job, and he leaves readers to speculate.

For some readers, the ones I’m talking about, it can be helpful to read about a situation without resolution. If a book presents readers with a question, and if the question isn’t resolved in the text, the only way to find resolution is for readers to think about it themselves or talk it out with someone else. In this case, that means they’re thinking or talking to someone else about racism. And they’re doing so at their own direction.

Look for books that present situations with implied questions. Asking an implied question engages readers in a different way. It opens a conversation outside the book.

Answering the question limits the engagement to the book/reader relationship. It takes an open-ended question like, “Why didn’t Ronnie get hired?” and turns it into a closed question: "Do you agree or not?"

An implied, open question lets the drawn-in reader continue to read, even if they are a little suspicious and would disagree with the obvious conclusion. They move further into the trap. And the more you read about Ronnie, the harder it is to deny that he worked his ass off and deserved better.

It’s Too Late

Many a library will set up a display or create a list of books for Black History Month or Pride or any number of other events. These are good things to do.

The issue with these displays or recommendations or a list of books with a title like, “Read These 10 Books to Understand Racism” is that it requires people to self-identify as being in need of further wisdom. People don’t think of themselves as in need of more education, even if they are. It's an easy out for people who've done some diverse reading, but maybe not enough.

These lists also provide an early warning system for someone avoiding the issue entirely. Someone who thinks, “I’m tired of talking about this,” is going to steer clear of a list like “Fantasy Novels That Are Feminist AF.” This is how we end up with the people who need these lists the most avoiding them entirely.

This means you miss everyone except the people specifically looking for that list. 

But let’s rewind a bit. Is our goal to get people to read the LIST, or is it to get them to read the BOOKS?

Here’s how you switch up recommendations so they reach today's intended audience.

Here’s how you switch up recommendations so they reach today's intended audience.

You make a list of horror authors, and you list a diverse set of authors working in horror. You list books about personal finance, and you list a book by a thought leader in the field who is black. When you have a go-to list of how-to writing resources, you include Colson Whitehead’s “How To Write” NYT article, or you list Scratch, which includes essays from Roxane Gay, Alexander Chee, Porochista Khakpour, and a ton of other excellent writers (this book is great for the financially-curious writer, by the way). If you’re lucky enough that people respect your opinion, when you share your go-to books, you mix it up.

Someone loves horror novels, and they’re drawn in by a list. It’s only after they’ve read through the list, maybe even after they’ve read some of the titles, that they realize they’ve read something they wouldn’t have otherwise. By the time the trap is sprung, they’re all the way in. No opportunity to back out. They’re already caught.

One More Time

I've said this a dozen times already. One more: Remember what success looks like here. Success looks like someone who never would've read Victor LaValle reading Victor LaValle. 

This is another golf club in your golf bag. Not an argument that you should throw all your other clubs in the lake and only use this one.

Although maybe go ahead and do that if you're taking this literally. I think throwing golf clubs in a lake is probably AT LEAST as fun as playing golf by the rules.

Get Yeah Buddy!: My Incredible Story! by Ronnie Coleman at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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