The best books for reading about reading

Daniel Silliman Author Of Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith
By Daniel Silliman

Who am I?

I'm a journalist and a historian who writes about how American evangelicals are complicated. I was trying to explain Left Behind in graduate school and I talked and talked about the theology in the book—all about the doctrines of the rapture, the antichrist, and the millennium. Then my professor said, “But it’s fiction, right? Why is it fiction? What are people doing when they read a novel instead, of say, a theological treatise?” I had no idea. But it seemed like a good question. That was the spark of Reading Evangelicals. But first, I had to read everything I could find about how readers read and what happens when they do.

I wrote...

Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith

By Daniel Silliman,

Book cover of Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith

What is my book about?

The history of American evangelicalism told through five mega-bestselling novels, the people who sold them, and the readers who had mixed feelings. There is so much Christian fiction and it is read by so many people—millions and millions. What my book proposes is…maybe that’s important? In the history of bestselling evangelical fiction, we can see the hopes, fears, and imagination of American evangelicals. We can see the core question that evangelicals ask themselves and the conversation that grows out of the diverse and sometimes contradictory answers. And then, by paying attention to how and where those books are sold, we can understand how the “imagined community” is held together.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America

Why did I love this book?

Denning is a master. He mixes literary analysis, historical sleuthing, and some smart ideological excavation to see how dime novels—treated like trash by most scholars—were used by working men and women in 19th century America. They were creating a culture and their reading did all the things that culture does: helped them make sense of the world, gave them a place to pay with ideas, and invent myths and narratives for orientation. All while middle-class scolds told them they were reading “wrong.”

If you’ve ever loved a book that wasn’t good for you, or wanted to seriously think about something that wasn’t “serious,” this book is for you.

By Michael Denning,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mechanic Accents as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mechanic Accents is a widely acclaimed study of American popular fiction and working-class culture. Combining Marxist literary theory with American labor history, Michael Denning explores what happened when, in the nineteenth century, working people began to read cheap novels and the ""fiction question"" became a class question. In a new afterword, Denning locates his study within the context of current debates on class and cultural studies.

Book cover of Words Upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study

Why did I love this book?

The most common kind of book club in America is a Bible study. And while lots and lots of people have opinions about how you should read the Bible, or who is doing it wrong, no one delves into how real readers read the sacred text like James Bielo.

An ethnographer who is interested in American religion, Bielo is a careful and kind observer, who does everything he can to understand what people are doing when they read the Bible together. He takes you with him and you’ll see the world differently because he did.

By James S. Bielo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Words Upon the Word as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Evangelical Bible study groups are the most prolific type of small group in American society, with more than 30 million Protestants gathering every week for this distinct purpose, meeting in homes, churches, coffee shops, restaurants, and other public and private venues across the country. What happens in these groups? How do they help shape the contours of American Evangelical life? While more public forms of political activism have captured popular and scholarly imaginations, it is in group Bible study that Evangelicals reflect on the details of their faith. Here they become self-conscious religious subjects, sharing the intimate details of life,…

Book cover of Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature

Why did I love this book?

If there is anything that snobs hate more than popular literature, it’s popular literature that’s popular with women. Especially young women, middle-aged women, and older women. 

Radway really revolutionized the historic study of readers with this book. It has some weaknesses, but there are many many more things that it gets right, starting with the premise that you shouldn’t just assume why people read. But ask them.

By Janice A. Radway,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Reading the Romance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1984, Reading the Romance challenges popular (and often demeaning) myths about why romantic fiction, one of publishing's most lucrative categories, captivates millions of women readers. Among those who have disparaged romance reading are feminists, literary critics, and theorists of mass culture. They claim that romances enforce the woman reader's dependence on men and acceptance of the repressive ideology purveyed by popular culture. Radway questions such claims, arguing that critical attention ""must shift from the text itself, taken in isolation, to the complex social event of reading."" She examines that event, from the complicated business of publishing and…

Book cover of The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett

Why did I love this book?

Wolfgang Iser isn’t for the faint of heart. You don’t read him as much as wrestle. But in this work, the German theorist teaches you to watch for the ghost of the reader who haunts fiction, the one who isn’t quite there, but always right next to you, implied by the text as the intended audience, the ideal reader (who isn’t quite you).

He’s German and this is literary theory, so put away your phone, but if you can wrestle with Iser it will change forever how you read anything.

By Wolfgang Iser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Implied Reader as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Like no other art form, the novel confronts its readers with circumstances arising from their own environment of social and historical norms and stimulates them to assess and criticize their surroundings. By analyzing major works of English fiction ranging from Bunyan, Fielding, Scott, and Thackeray to Joyce and Beckett, renowned critic Wolfgang Iser here provides a framework for a theory of such literary effects and aesthetic responses. Iser's focus is on the theme of discovery, whereby the reader is given the chance to recognize the deficiencies of his own existence and the suggested solutions to counterbalance them. The content and…

Book cover of Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination

Why did I love this book?

I’m cheating a little here, but I made the rules and there’s a little clause in the rules I made that says I can break them as long as I announce that I am breaking them. Herewith, I announce. 

This isn’t a book about readers. It’s a book about watchers—specifically the Dutch audience for the soap opera Dallas. But this book is so good and so wild, it changed forever the way I think about “reception,” including reading. I recommend this book all the time and if you want to understand the freedom and creativity of readers, you have to read it.

By Ien Ang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Watching Dallas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Dallas, one of the great internationally-screened soap operas, offers us first and foremost entertainment. But what is it about Dallas that makes that entertainment so successful, and how exactly is its entertainment constructed?

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Michigan, the patriarchy, and Detroit?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Michigan, the patriarchy, and Detroit.

Michigan Explore 59 books about Michigan
The Patriarchy Explore 70 books about the patriarchy
Detroit Explore 48 books about Detroit