Monday, May 5, 2014

The Reasons for Reading, Or There are so many readers out there

I read reviews of books on and often run across reviews that say something like "books should do x" or "great writers do y" or "real literature always has z." Just to be perverse, rather than look at what a good book should do why don't we come at the problem from the reader's point of view? If we ask why someone reads a book then we should be able to answer the question of what a book should do.

We read for pleasure, of course, but that pleasure comes in many forms: to laugh, to be moved emotionally, to be thrilled, to be horrified, to be just scared a little. I think that one of the reasons that 'kid's lit' (or Young Adult fiction) is so popular is because it delivers these pleasures in concentrated doses (I'm looking at you, "Hunger Games").

We also read to gain some insight into a time or place we find interesting. Reading for this reason can work in at least three ways. A book that is written about a time and place will give the reader a view from the author's perspective (and providing that view was probably part of the author's intention in writing the book). People who read historical fiction or books set in Japan are obviously in this category. Much of my fascination with books from India has been the chance to be exposed to life in a foreign country.

A book is also of its time and expresses that time and place without the author intending to do that. We often read books written years ago to understand what people wanted to write about "back then." So, while Trollope describes the world he lives in as he sees it, Trollope is also a product of his time. As a result, the things that he wants to talk about and the way he talks about them help us understand the time he lived--and I enjoy that. I'm reading "Junky" by William Burroughs at least in part to understand what it was like to be a junkie in New York in the 1950s.

In addition, a book is also of its time and place because of the way it was received by the readers of its time. Reading the popular literature of a different time or place is often wonderful way of understanding what the people "back then" or "over there" care/cared about. People who read "Victorian literature" or fiction from the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s (as I do) probably fall into both of these categories: they read for the insight into that time and they read for the pleasures that books at that time delivered to readers. It's certainly the only possible reason I could have for why I'm reading "The Mysteries of Udolpho" by Ann Radcliffe.

We read to be informed: The reason that I'm slogging the "The UX Book."

Some people (me, again, as an example) read to see how language can be used. What sort of things do you talk about in a collection called "The Best Gardening Writing of 1992"? How do sports writers write about tennis matches and baseball games? One of the things that I enjoyed about some of the military books that I've read has been the way they are written, as much as the context.Closely related to this is reading to see how writing has changed over time. I've read a number of books that were written decades (or even centuries) ago and enjoyed seeing where my language started from and how it ended up where it is today.

Sometimes we read to get "behind" writers to the material that affected them and that they draw on. A writer you like refers to some other book as "great" and you go and buy that book. You buy not it not only because you think that book will be a good read but also because it will give you some insight into that writer. The reason that I read three of the Italian epics (the two Orlando books and "Jerusalem Delivered") was because C.S. Lewis spoke well of them.

Fans of an author (or genre), of course, compulsively search out books because they want to read 'everything' (that's almost the definition of 'a fan'). Readers who want all the books in a particular series of stories often read books for this reason (they often say things like "Oh, I know that book wasn't very good, but I've read everything else."). Others recognize this as a reason for reading and will mention that a book is "for fans only." While in New York, I picked up a copy of William Burrough's "Queer" because I'm reading "Junky", will be reading "Naked Lunch," and "Queer" is sort of the book he wrote in between those books. I've read all of John Gardner's books (including his kid's books and books about writing) because they're all written by John Gardner.

I suspect this list isn't exhaustive: there's probably lots of reasons that I've missed and I've only picked the ones that I know drive my reading. My wife, for example, will read almost anything as long as she gets to meet interesting people in the book--plot and action are nice but not a necessity. I've read any number of thrillers where characterization was obviously unimportant and plot was everything that mattered.

So, when someone says "a book should do x" or "good authors don't do y" I don't think that the person writing the review has any idea what they're talking about. In fact, if we looked at all the books that those reviewers have read we'd probably find that they're not even talking about why they read: they probably read lots of books that don't do either x or y. I recognize that my only reading is driven by a variety of different purposes and, I suspect, theirs is also. There are so many readers reading for so many different reasons that it's difficult (by which I mean "impossible") for anyone to say what a writer should or shouldn't do.

Reading or read

  • The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel by Isaac Babel
  • Junky by William S. Burroughs 
  • The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
  • Tales of Sevastopol by Leo Tolstoy
  • Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Scorpion by Matt Wagner
  • Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Blackhawk and the Return of the Scarlet Ghost by Matt Wagner
  • Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Vamp by Matt Wagner
  • The Human Stain by Philip Roth
  • God's Gift to Women by Don Paterson
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki 
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  • Krishnakanta's Will by Bankim-chandra Chatterjee
  • River of Fire by Qurratulain Hyder
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