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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Michael Denning,

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

Why 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.


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

By James S. Bielo,

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

Why 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.


Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature

By Janice A. Radway,

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

Why 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.


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

By Wolfgang Iser,

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

Why 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.


Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination

By Ien Ang,

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

Why 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.


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