The difference between readers will never cease to be fascinating. Like choice of car, cigarette, where you buy your house, what you feed your kids, and how you keep your desk organized, it reveals the conscious decisions of the individual.
Although this outlook may seem similar to the consumerist idea that you can buy a bunch of neat random things and be “unique” by “expressing yourself,” that symptom is actually the reverse of what is described in the paragraph above. In that view, you buy objects to fit your needs, and that reveals what you value.
In the false consumer variant, you buy objects to make yourself appear as if you have certain needs and values, and hope to construct yourself from those. It’s like painting a picture of what you wish you were like, and hiding behind it when introduced to people. It is similar to what an actor does, creating an ersatz persona.
Through the bookshops in your city, and the bookshelves of the people who live in it, you can see this difference in action.
Start in the outer suburbs. These are people who forsake convenience in the city for having a nice place to raise kids. Lower crime, better schools, more space, fewer cars. Out here, you’re at first tempted to mock what they read. It’s Oprah book club stuff, on the surface. Trendy novels and dumb self-help books. A lot of contemporary Conservative literature with covers in red-white-blue only.
Skip that mess, then. Go into the city. Find a trendy urban neighborhood. Look at what people are reading there. On the surface, it’s more interesting. These are the books from the New York Times book list, the recommendations of Arts & Letters Daily, and the kind of hip stuff you see “intellectuals” talk about: Jared Diamond, Malcolm Gladwell, Michio Kaku, Howard Zinn, and some very nuanced novels.
Now compare the two by going under the skin. The outer suburbs have much bigger libraries. These libraries are actually more diverse in topic. They have all the crowd-pleasers (Stephen King, Ann Coulter, Lee Childs) but underneath that, there’s actually a huge variety of books on very specific topics. These are more like what you would find in a research library.
In the city, all of the books tend to be of the same type. For every five year cycle, there are about thirty books that urban pundits agree are profound. These are there in abundance. There is not much deviation from this list. It is almost as if everyone has the same bookshelf. They’re programming themselves with the same inputs.
The difference between surface and underlying structure is profound. In the suburbs, the surface is garbage, but underneath you see an intellectual life based on wide variety of topic area. In the city, the surface is shiny and provocative, but underneath you see very little actual dedication to learning. It’s more of a social circle, confirming its own opinions through the views of others.
Whenever people speak of “intellectuals,” you can use this simple litmus test. Are they explorers, or a group of people buzzing together with a hive-mind based on mutual agreement to what we could call social dogma? Our intellectuals today are the latter, which explains why they are always surprised by developments in reality that did not read the same thirty books as they did.