Reflections: reading for the experience

I saw this Guardian blog by Alison Flood doing the rounds on Twitter the other day: “Don’t read classic books because you think you should: do it for fun!” The particular context was reporting on a YouGov poll to find the 19th century classics that British people would like to read “if they had the time and patience”; writers including James Smythe and Sarah Perry had reacted to the poll on Twitter, pointing out – quite rightly – that they’re all just books in the end, and you can just… read them.

Polls like this, and articles like the Guardian’s, are not uncommon; but these in particular touched a nerve, because of the ways I have been trying to think more about how and why I read. It struck me that one of the things I’ve tended to do as part of that process is to step away from ideas like “reading for pleasure” or “reading to be challenged, and focus instead on what it’s like to read an individual work.

When I think back to the experiences of reading (to choose two powerful recent examples) Mrs Dalloway or Human Acts, a concept like “pleasure”, wide-ranging and malleable though it may be, doesn’t seem enough. These experiences were complex, visceral, and unique to themselves; what they did, ultimately, was to intensify the experience of being alive. Scott Esposito put it well in an essay from last year – talking, coincidentally, about Mrs Dalloway:

I spent so much time just trying to get Mrs. Dalloway to talk back to me. In my previous 22 years of life I had never read sentences of the sort Virginia Woolf writes in that book. They came on like the onslaught of some undiscovered microbe, the intense fever they promulgated within me inducing blurred eyes and a dazed head that could just not think of the usual things. I spent a week with this illness, and when I eventually recovered I understood that for all the times I was destined to fall so ill again, the infection would never be quite so revitalizing. Nearly 15 years later this is still why I seek this search for the silence that brings that revitalizing fever.

Esposito’s essay is calling for ways to talk about novelty in literature without resorting to the language of “difficulty”. I think that’s analogous to what I’m trying to do on here: find a better, more precise way to describe what it’s like when I read. “Read Human Acts for the experience of reading Human Acts” may not be the most informative recommendation, though it may at root be what I need to say. This blog is here to help me unpack that experience and others like (or unlike) it.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

12 Comments

  1. Very eloquently written piece – reading classics shouldn’t be a chore completed out of obligation but then, as you say, not all books that are worth reading can be described as being read “for pleasure”. Hoping to get hold of copies of Human Acts and The Vegetarian very soon!

    • Thank you! It’s books like Human Acts and The Vegetarian that made me rethink the idea of reading for pleasure. It’s not that they’re not enjoyable, but… I can’t reduce them to one thing, you know?

      I expect Han Kang will have a t least one book in contention for the Man Booker International… in fact, I could see her winning.

  2. “Pleasure” is definitely the wrong word, because a lot of the books I read are not really pleasant. But I read for the effect the books have on me – a really great work makes me come out of the other of reading it very changed.

  3. Very well-written, Dave. One of the things I got sucked into as far as blogging was trying to read as fast as possible and doing as many reviews as I could in a week. But then I found that I wasn’t fully appreciating the works I read. So I’ve slowed down and take more time to absorb each book. And so what if I have fewer reviews.

    • Thanks Melissa! I found that a couple of years ago: I was getting through books quickly, but not really *reading*. So now I try to be more selective, and just blog about the books that matter the most.

  4. Yes, I agree with Kaggsy. There are times when I read for ‘pleasure’, just for the fun of it, or to relax, or to take my mind off other things. But most of the time I want more than that, I want to discover new ideas, or new ways of thinking, or to explore the way a writer has used language or structure or a new form to do something different. I grew up reading the classics because they were in my home, but I love reading Nobel Prize winners because they tend to be innovative, I like poking a tentative toe into experimental fiction, and translated fiction is exciting because it most often offers an way of looking at the world in an entirely different way.

  5. I read to escape into other worlds and I write for pretty much the same reason. The worlds may be terrifying, funny, illuminating, enraging, difficult, complex, simple, pleasurable or deeply upsetting …

  6. Interesting thoughts, as usual. I think people resort to the idea of reading being ‘fun’ because they don’t want to frighten readers away, but it sends a message that if you’re not having fun, don’t do it. I expect literature to engage my intellect and emotions: if it’s failing one of those it’s not really working for me.
    I agree that we need to stop confusing novelty with difficulty. It’s also worth knowing that, just like anything else, reading requires practice.

    • Thanks, Grant. One thing that bugs me about contemporary reading culture is that it can treat a particular kind of ‘fun’ as the only game in town when it comes to reading. But I’ve come to value and appreciate a deeper connection with what I read.

      And yes, we forget that reading fiction is a skill that can be developed. Some books do require different ways of reading, which can be learned – and it can be a pleasure to have that skill!

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