Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Why do we read ?

I'm currently working my way through Robert Eaglestone's essay collection, Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Classic and came across the following quote from Jay Bolter's Writing Spaces (1991):

Losing oneself in a fictional world is the goal of the naive reader or one who reads as entertainment. (11) [quoted p.152]
And my mind boggled. The primary reason that anyone reads fiction is surely for entertainment, isn't it ? Or am I, as Bolter claims, simply being naive ? Even as a "critic", the main reason I have for reading is entertainment - reading is something I really enjoy doing. Don't get me wrong, I've learned a lot over 35 years of being a reader from reading fiction (as well as from non-fiction), but that's not why I read fiction. As I tell people who ask me what I do, when I answer that I'm a writer who writes "literary criticism" (and I do put it in quotes), I am still, first and foremost, a reader and as such, I won't write about any book I didn't enjoy reading and re-reading. I'm not in college, being forced to write essays to earn course credits, therefore I can freely choose to only write about the books I've enjoyed reading and re-reading - hence, Harry Potter and Tolkien are the two subjects about which I've most often written since I graduated.

As for immersing oneself in a fictional world, why on earth would any writer go to the trouble of creating a secondary world (or recreating a historical one) if not with the intention of having their readers immerse themselves in it ? Even contemporary novels often require the reader to immerse themselves in a world with which they're unfamiliar, be that the world of high-tech crime fighting, the world of the secret agent, the world of being a teacher, or a librarian, or a housewife, or a mother, or some other world that is not the reader's world. Why would a write bother to describe their fictional world (even when it's based on a real-life one) in any detail if they did not expect their readers to immerse themselves in it ?

So am I being naive in thinking we read fiction for entertainment, first and foremost ? Why do you read ?

9 comments:

Jessica Rydill said...

Really I don't think you are naive, Michele. Comments like the one you quoted make me see red - once again they create the impression that those followers of literary theory are detached from the reasons that people read in the real world. It seems to me a kind of elitism to distinguish between the "naive reader" who merely enjoys a book (perish the thought) and those who apparently engage with it on an intellectual level (as if the two ideas were mutually exclusive...

Krista said...

If reading fiction for entertainment is naive, I proudly raise my hand to join the ranks of all naive people who actually enjoy books without feeling as if they have to analyze them. ;-)

Michele said...

Jessica thanks for the reassurance. But maybe literary theorists don't read for pleasure ? I confess I've sometimes wondered if a particular literary theorist even likes the book they're criticising, given the tone of what they're writing. (I can't think of any specific examples right now, but it's very early still and I'm uncaffeinated !)

I know I certainly read on two levels at once, at the level of what I've termed my "inner critic" and at the level of my "inner 6 year old", and I joke that sometimes the 6 year old runs off with the book and won't let the critic get a look in until she's found out how it all ends... But often the inner critic reads the book to the inner 6 year old, and the 6 year old enjoys the story and the critic is analysing as she reads...

I'll join you, Krista, in being naive, since even though on one level I'm analysing as I read, on the other, I just want to know "what happened next" !

Kelly said...

In my experience, literary theorists DO NOT read much for pleasure, which is a pity.

I read for entertainment, to learn something new, to lose myself in another world, and to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. And, for intellectual engagement.

Michele said...

That's what I suspected, Kelly ! And I'm with you - I also read for intellectual stimulation and for the chance to walk in someone else's shoes for a while...

Ervin said...

Literary theory used to be a bunch of lies in my past. For instance, in school we were forced to memorize the one and only authorized interpretation of given poems and such and we were not allowed to have our own opinion. When I wrote my own poems I had to realize that I had no idea of why I wrote what I had written. So much of theories.

Now, for one I used to be an avid reader of up to 15 volumes a week at a much younger age. Today I seldom read entire books but when I do read something I read for three main reasons:
(1) reading something new and pleasurable gives me inspiration toward thinking about things I wouldn't without. Note that this does not mean that I would write anything which I actually don't at least 99 times out of 100.
(2) I do it for the beauty of the language and
(3) I still have some hunger for new information that can't be satisfied via TV or google videos.

Michele said...

Thanks for your thoughts Ervin. I almost never watch TV (just the occasional movie or pre-recorded show) as it doesn't do a lot for my intellectual stimulation, whereas reading a book and listening to music (something I do in combination) really stimulates me. I've been known to go on thinking about a story I've read for days afterwards, whereas in my days of regularly watching TV, it was mostly a case of once seen, totally forgotten !

Jen Robinson said...

You can number me among the naive readers, too, Michele. I read because I love stories. I love immersing myself in them, to such a point that I lose track of where I am physically, a little bit. And yes, sometimes I read to get a new perspective on something, too. There's nothing like a good novel to lend the reader empathy for people different from herself. I write book reviews so that I can bring the books that I love to other people's attention, not out of any need to be a formal literary critic.

Michele said...

Hooray for naive readers, then ! Perhaps we should "take back reading" from the literary theorists and reclaim it for our own pleasure ?

I know just what you mean about being so immersed in a book that I forget where I am - I've missed (or nearly missed) a bus stop before now because I was so engrossed...