How I Read
Simon published a great post today entitled “How We Read…Assumptions & Expectations.” Since I briefly mentioned this in my Sunday Salon, and have been replying to people’s comments, it’s been on my mind. Also, I’m reading two very different novels right now, Carpentaria by Alexis Wright and The Bostonians by Henry James, and it’s interesting to see how I mentally shift depending on which one I pick up.
So, I’ve decided to, erm, borrow Simon’s inspiration this morning and discuss how I approach books and reading. I might as well begin with fiction, although I’ll be addressing nonfiction later!
Having said that fiction is fiction I am now wondering if I read it differently from others out there. I don’t want to be sat reading a book and be aware its fiction.
I definitely love being swept away by a novel, being caught up in the lives of the characters as if they’re real people, even myself, and being breathless with anticipation of what will finally happen, as if the ending could go a myriad of ways, rather than being firmly in the hands of the author. I can suspend my sense of disbelief well enough that even rereading books, I worry that maybe the good ending will change or hope that something will avert disaster this time (I do this when watching movies too). I’m not sure if that makes me odd, or if everyone worries when rereading their favourite Austen that maybe this time, Fate will keep the couple apart. I think that’s the power of a traditional novel, and it’s certainly how I’m reading The Bostonians. I’m on tender hooks right now, knowing that I’m one hundred pages from the end and I have no idea how Verbena’s life is going to turn out!
But there are other novels, written in what I think of as ‘modern’ or experimental styles, that I enjoy just as much, although the writing/structure/etc. is constantly reminded me that I’m reading fiction. I think Rushdie’s like that…he’s one of my favourite authors, but I don’t recommend him indiscriminately the way I do Austen. Because Rushdie’s books always have a self-consciousness about them, a playing with language and metaphor and story, that is different from traditional story-telling. I don’t think it’s a more ‘advanced’ style (have y’all ever heard my rant on the idea of ‘progress’?), but it does have different aims. And as a reader, I approach a Rushdie novel, or for the classic example a Woolf novel, in a different way. They can be just as vivid with their characters and their settings and they can have plots that keep me turning the pages, but the book never simple dissolves into its story. I am always a Reader with this kind of fiction. That’s what Carpentaria is like for me; I’m truly enjoying the book, and I find it fascinating, but the writing keeps me on my toes. I have to use different parts of my brain, and I have to work with the book in order to get a good reading experience out of it, rather than leaving most of that in the book’s hands.
I don’t mean to imply that these are two perfectly distinct styles of fiction; they’re definitely more of a continuum. And I certainly believe that traditional-style novels can be just as thought-provoking, intelligent, subtle, and full of marvelous writing…this isn’t a question of lesser/greater or highbrow/lowbrow. And it’s not a question of genre; much of the fantasy I read sweeps me into the world immediately whereas novels set in present, everyday life can be completely experimental. It’s just a difference in approach.
While I can love fiction written in either style, I do have to be careful. Usually, I can tell from the first few pages of a book which direction it’s headed in, and I prepare myself accordingly. But if, from any prior knowledge, I think a book is going to be more traditional or more experimental, and then it proves the opposite, my brain can have a hard time overturning that original assumption. So I end up cranky with the book! Usually, in those instances I persevere for a hundred pages or so, and if I still haven’t switched reading gears, I set it aside until I’m in the mood for it (this usually only takes me reading one novel that matches my current mood before I’m ready to dive in again).
I do hope that I’m making sense! I’ve never taken a literature course at the post-high school level, so these musings are completely amateur-ish, and I’m sure you lit people are cringing at my misapprehensions or rolling your eyes at my obviousness or something like that.
To go on about assumptions, I don’t usually have high expectations about a book from other people’s gushing reviews. I know that everyone has different taste, so I tend to take that with a grain of salt. Instead, I end up with high expectations either when I’ve read and loved a different book by the same author or when I’m in love with the book’s premise (maybe a plot or setting for fiction, a topic or approach for nonfiction). There’s nothing I can really do about the author thing, and honestly my very favourite authors rarely disappoint. But the way I try to get around expectations caused by premise is to know as little as possible about the ‘blurb-y’ bits of a book going in. So, I might put a book on hold because another blogger said it incredibly beautiful imagery. But I’ll try to skip over the bits in the review that discuss any kind of plot, or even characters. And I never read the publisher’s summary anymore for fiction. (I do for nonfiction but usually only the first paragraph or so.)
For nonfiction, my approach to a book depends on whether it’s ‘harder’ or ‘softer.’ Once again, I’d like to emphasise that there’s no value judgement in those terms! For me, soft nonfiction includes memoirs, travelogues, personal essays…the kind of nonfiction writing that focuses more on the author’s experiences, wherein I don’t expect to see a bibliography or an index or footnotes/endnotes. My enjoyment of these books is affected by how much I can empathise with the authors, and I tend to read them with my critical faculties suspended. Of course, if the author begins to express opinions that I strongly disagree with, those critical reasoning abilities will turn themselves back on and fume, and once I’ve finished the book, I evaluate the author’s worldview and biases before forming a final opinion, but while I’m actually reading a book, I’ll assume that the author’s right until proven otherwise. I think this is because softer nonfiction focuses so much on how an individual filters the world, and I read it accordingly. I also expect the writing in soft nonfiction to be strong; it should entertain me, or be elegant, or have some other quality I can admire.
For harder nonfiction, where the focus of the book isn’t the author but some other topic, I am a much harsher critic. I constantly question the sources of an author, look for logical fallacies in their reasoning, and basically break out all of my liberal arts training. I find it difficult to take hard nonfiction seriously if it doesn’t have at least 30 pages at the end of non-textual information (i.e.: that bibliography, index, etc. that I mentioned before). I’ve noticed that I’m especially critical of biographies; if an author appears too gushing over her subject, I usually just abandon the book. Also, I can get a lot of enjoyment out of reading a hard nonfiction book written by an author with completely different opinions than my own. The reading becomes a kind of intellectual debate, and I love that. I’m less concerned with the writing style; I can accept a bit of dryness as long as there’s intelligence as well (though of course, a more engaging writing style will make me love the book rather than merely enjoy it).
So whereas in soft nonfiction, my reading experience depends largely on the author’s personality and writing style, in hard nonfiction it depends upon the author’s scholarly rigour and good writing is a bonus. Once again, different parts of my brain become engaged depending on what type of book it is. Right now, I’m reading a memoir/travelogue (Kinky Gazpacho by Lori Tharps), and I’m delighted with it because it’s humorous and Tharps has brought me into her mindset, so that I’m experiencing the events in the book as if I were her. However, I’m also reading what I expected to be a hard nonfiction book (The Undressed Art by Peter Steinhart), and at 100 pages in, I’m seriously considering abandoning it, because the author is making too many questionable claims on very shaky evidence. I had expected the focus to be on drawing and art, but Steinhart keeps bringing science into it, and there are some definite whiffs of evolutionary psychology that make me doubt everything else he’s arguing. In my mind, he’s lost his credibility, and thus I’ve lost interest in the book.
It’s even easier for me to make assumptions about nonfiction than fiction, since flipping through the book, or reading the author bio can give away quite a bit. I rarely confuse a softer or harder nonfiction read (although sometimes essay collections can walk that line), so my brain is in the appropriate gear from the get-go. That being said, my expectations about the topic itself (which is more important for me in nonfiction than fiction) can sometimes be frustratingly misleading.
I’ve already talked much too long about my own reading process!* But I find the topic fascinating, and it’s one that I’d love to see more bloggers discuss. After all, I’m sure that there are as many styles of reading as there are readers! So it’s over to you! Either comment on Simon’s post (I’ve already subscribed to those comments in anticipation of a lively discussion), which is full of wonderful thought-provoking questions which I’ve mainly managed to ignore in my own ramblings, or comment here. Do you prefer a certain style of fiction or nonfiction, because it matches your default reading mode? Can you handle different styles with ease? (My own default mode is on the traditional side of fiction and the harder side of nonfiction, although I find it relatively easy to switch over as necessary.) Do you have a completely different reading experience than my own and suspect that I’m full of hogwash? Or do you prefer to not worry about the analysing your reading, and just get on with it? Basically: how do you read? Inquiring minds wish to know!
Footnote One: Hee hee. I must have the sense of humour of a ten-year-old, because that kind of made me giggle. Sorry Simon!
Footnote Two: Is anyone else haunted by the ‘Word count’ display WordPress shows you while drafting a post?