Monday, November 06, 2006

Does being a reviewer affect my reading ?

I've been thinking about this quite a bit since Jen Robinson posted about it on her Blog last week. An intense discussion has taken place in the comments on the post, which you can read if you follow the link above, but here's what I said

Jen mentioned, in her remarks, that she marks passages in books with post-it notes:

I, too, have taken to marking good passages with sticky notes to include in my reviews. I like to include such passages as proof that I'm paying attention to the writing style as well as the actual narrative, so that no one thinks that my sole object is to read as many books as possible ! Just because I read fast doesn't mean I don't pay attention. (Unproofed copies of books get their errors marked up in pencil, too !)

Otherwise, the way I read hasn't really changed since I took to writing regular reviews for my Blog. I've always been one to discuss books passionately, but now I do it on my Blog, instead of boring my non-reading friends with my ravings (well OK, I do rave occasionally to friends !) - which was the main reason for starting my Blog in the first place since the reading friend to whom I raved passed away.

In the discussion that followed, Jen also mentioned that book reviewing has taken away some of her enjoyment of the books she reads as she doesn't get as lost in them as she used to do, or she doesn't get as lost so often. Jen also mentions the need "to come up for air" in order to make a note of something she's read. Here's what I said in response:
I've mentioned this before in various places, but since I did my English degree 5 years ago, I have acquired the facility to read on two levels at once (98% of the time), as a critic and as a child. My inner 6 year old just wants to know what happens next and does everyone live "happily ever after" ? My inner critic looks at the point(s) of view, the narrative structure, use of language, style, voice, etc., etc.

This has, in fact, *increased* my enjoyment of the books I read, not decreased it... But apparently, I'm luckier than some/most in that respect !

I confess that it was doing a degree in English that changed the way I read. When I started my degree, I did worry that my favourite books would be spoilt by studying them in detail, but the opposite was, and still is, true. I can appreciate books, and what their authors have achieved, more by studying them - close reading, analytical comparison, and the "dissection" of books have taught me to appreciate the art of story telling that is being practised in the books I read. I feel I am a more intelligent and engaged reader now, than I was back in 1998, before I started my degree. Does that make me a "better" reader ? The answer to that depends on what you mean by "better", of course. Is it better to be able to spot themes, recognise symbolism, observe when the narratorial point of view switches between first and third person as well as between characters ? I think so. Why ? Because it means that when I talk to authors, I have a better understanding of their art and the work that goes into making a good story, which makes my conversations with authors more interesting to me, as a reader and as a writer. But that doesn't mean I disdain anyone who reads simply and purely for pleasure. Far from it. Analysing books isn't for everyone - I know that. So I'm a better reader for a given value of better. But that doesn't mean that readers who don't analyse books are somehow worse readers. There's no elitism implied in my use of the term "better reader". The desire to be a better reader is purely personal, and it's not a goal that every reader will have, and of course, that's OK. I want people to read and to enjoy reading - I don't care what they read or how they choose to read, I only care that they read because I believe that reading makes the reader a better human being. Reading opens up minds, shows us what it's like to be other people in other places living other lives - which can only be a good thing as it breaks down barriers and helps to overcome prejudice. Which is not to say that I disdain non-readers. I feel slightly sorry for people who don't enjoy reading, simply because I get such pleasure from it, but I know very well that not everyone loves books as much as I do.

* * * * * *

Jen's comments from her post are reported with her permission.

EDITED to add - there was an interesting and thought-provoking article by American novelist Paul Auster in the Guardian yesterday. He says:

art is useless, at least when compared, say, to the work of a plumber, or a doctor, or a railroad engineer. But is uselessness a bad thing? Does a lack of practical purpose mean that books and paintings and string quartets are simply a waste of our time? Many people think so. But I would argue that it is the very uselessness of art that gives it its value and that the making of art is what distinguishes us from all other creatures who inhabit this planet, that it is, essentially, what defines us as human beings.

To do something for the pure pleasure and beauty of doing it. Think of the effort involved, the long hours of practice and discipline required to become an accomplished pianist or dancer. All the suffering and hard work, all the sacrifices in order to achieve something that is utterly and magnificently ... useless.

Fiction, however, exists in a somewhat different realm from the other arts. Its medium is language, and language is something we share with others, that is common to us all. From the moment we learn to talk, we begin to develop a hunger for stories.


Do take a look and then feel free to come back and discuss Auster's thoughts here.

11 comments:

Sheila said...

Wow. Well said, Michele!

Michele said...

Thanks Sheila !

Martin LaBar said...

Well said. Glad you can both enjoy books, even though you read them critically, and accept that everybody doesn't read critically.

Michele said...

Well I didn't become a critic until 8 years ago, so I spent the first 28 years of my life reading books purely for pleasure - and I've not forgotten how much pleasure I did get from reading... There are a number of books (most of which I've talked about on this Blog) which I read as a child which have stand-out stories that have stayed in my head for 25+ years. That's proof that reading for pleasure is not a poor second, at least in my eyes...

Michele said...

I should also add that I do still read for pleasure - I don't count writing reviews as critical activity - and the majority of the books I read, whilst they get reviewed, don't get studied. At least 95% of the many books that I read are read purely for pleasure (it's not often I read a book that I don't enjoy, after all) - therefore I'm in no position to disdain anyone who chooses not to read books critically !

As I tell my non-reading friends, I'm still as much a bookworm as I've ever been - and since no one is imposing essay titles on me, I can choose just what to write about critically, and I only write critically about books I've enjoyed reading. There's no point, otherwise !

Jen Robinson said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Michele. I especially liked what you said about how being a "better reader" is a personal decision, and not meant to imply any elitism relative to people who read purely for pleasure. I've been thinking along similar lines (since Gregory K. challenged me on that) and I feel the same way. I do think that reviewing has made me a better reader: more careful, more thoughtful, more noticing. And that's kind of a parallel thing to enjoyment. I still have to think about it some more, but you've definitely given me some food for thoughts. Thanks!

Michele said...

Jen you're welcome - and thanks for your thoughtful post in the first place !

It seems to me that it's all too easy to imply elitism where none is intended. And I feel the same way - that I'm more careful, more noticing and more thoughtful a reader than I was 8 years ago - which is a good thing *for me*...

Nancy said...

Michele, wonderful post. You've effectively outlined your approach to reading and how reading critically can add to your reading experience. I think my experience is similar to yours, in that I still appreciate the "magic" of books even while I look behind the curtain and see what's going on. In fact, my view behind the curtain serves to deepen my appreciation for the magic.

Michele said...

Thanks Nancy - you've expressed what I was trying to say far more poetically - I like the "looking behind the curtain" analogy !

Jen Robinson said...

I finally wrote up my further thoughts on this (the elitism issue and the enjoyment issue). I linked back here, too. Thanks for helping me to think about all of this.

Michele said...

Thanks Jen ! I'll be sure to check out your further comments - and thanks for starting such an interesting discussion...