The Buddhist Bookshelf

January 7th, 2010

Of course, I think a lot about Buddhist books. Duh. Looking over my list of books read in 2009, I see nine explicity Buddhist books, four others that would count as “religious studies,” seven that deal with Buddhism to some extent, and one written by someone I met at a Buddhist temple. And I’m trying to put together a plan for another book, one that I’d hope to see on the “Buddhism” shelf of your local megabookstore for so long.

Publishing is a business (as four other books on that list were wise to remind me) so I’ve been looking at the business side of it. We can lament this or cover our eyes and say “A good book is a good book,” but the truth is, some books sell and some books don’t, and it’s probably good mental practice to observe which ones do and which ones don’t.

What’s interesting about “Buddhist books” as a genre is that they’re at a strange point of overlap between the broader genres we see in the publishing industry. There are three areas in particular:

  • Argument, or general nonfiction. Including evidence and logic to make a point, in this case, a point about understanding Buddhism.
  • Self-help. Giving people advice on how to live better. Why else do we come to Buddhist teachings? (Though the “self” in there…)
  • Memoir. Almost all contemporary Buddhist books are, at some level, about something that happened to a writer.

It’s a juggling act. I think I’ve been tempted to stress the second part. I think Buddhist writings should help people. Some Buddhist books (I’m not naming names here) seem to stress the memoir and argument; I feel like summing them up as, “Here’s my story: I found Buddhism, and it helped me so much and made me happy and now I’m so happy!” Maybe someone gets something good out of them, but they leave me a little cold. It also makes me question the memoir–as you do with any memories–because it often seems the story must be simplified to reinforce the simple point, “Yay Buddhism.”

The problem with emphasizing the self-help aspect is that it can make the book seem preachy. Also, for better or worse, book buyers are most swayed by what rhetoricians call “appeal to ethos,” or what literary agents call “platform.” Basically, this means reputation. People considering buying a self-help book are more likely to buy from names they recognize; barring that, they look for cues that a writer has a position to give help. Which doesn’t bode well for a first-time writer.

Then I think of Turtle Feet, the last book I read in the year. It is purely a memoir of a former Buddhist monk. It’s funny, surprising, suspenseful–yet I wonder if it belongs on the “memoir” shelf alone. I’d be curious to have someone with no background in Buddhism read it and ask, did you get an understanding from this book of what Buddhism is? And then I’d ask a perhaps unanswerable question: Does this book help you live better?

It’s a threefold burden that other books seem exempt from. When we read a self-help book like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we don’t want to hear the writer’s story. When we read a good memoir like one by David Sedaris, we don’t think too much about whether he has an argumentative point, or whether reading it will help us live better.

So Buddhist writing is tricky, but when it’s done well, it’s successful three times over. Tomorrow, I’ll post my choice for the one Buddhist book I read in 2009 that, in hindsight, did all three jobs excellently.

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