Sunday, December 18, 2005

Reading for pleasure

The other night I read a fascinating study called Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure by Victor Nell. It's not a perfect book, it's got lots of rather skimmable data-tables and such, and yet how can you resist a book whose introduction is titled “The Insatiable Appetite”? It begins with these sentences:

Reading for pleasure is an extraordinary activity. The black squiggles on the white page are as still as the grave, colorless as the moonlit desert; but they give the skilled reader a pleasure as acute as the touch of a loved body, as rousing, colorful and transfiguring as anything out there in the real world. And yet, the more stirring the book the quieter the reader; pleasure reading breeds a concentration so effortless that the absorbed reader of fiction (transported by the book to some other place, and shielded by it from distractions), who is so often reviled as an escapist and denounced as the victim of a vice as pernicious as tippling in the morning[,] should instead be the envy of every student and every teacher.

Another interesting passage, a bit heavier this time on the sociological jargon (of course, the strange thing about reading a book like this--and presumably about writing it as well, you can see Nell in the grip of his own double identity--is that you're uneasily aware that you are in a position corresponding more closely to research subject than to principal investigator):

If ludic readers see themselves as depraved, like cigarette smokers or habitual masturbators, they will be compelled to deal with the resulting discomfort by a variety of strategies. And the nature and quality of the resolution readers find for the dissonance they experience will necessarily affect the rewards they derive from their reading, since the reinforcements to be derived from such socially sanctioned activities as painting in oils and attending the opera are likely to have a very different subjective quality than those gained from voyeurism or overeating.

He covers a lot of interesting topics—the effects of “protestant ethic” values on patterns of library purchasing, the difference between absorption and enchantment—and there’s a particularly good chapter on “The Sovereignty of the Reading Experience” (“Reading’s airy bamboo-and-paper house is a marvelously safe place, a protection from many kinds of earthquake: this fragile dwelling allows readers to enjoy a kind of sovereignty over their lives and their worlds”). Perhaps strangest of all, it vividly and somewhat inadvertently recreates aspects of the cultural milieu in which the studies were actually conducted, South Africa in 1977.

At one point Nell provides a really great quotation from Somerset Maugham, I'm sure I've read this before but it's nice to have it to hand:

Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent nor praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me, and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe. I would sooner read the catalogue of the Army and Navy Store or Bradshaw’s Guide than nothing at all, and indeed I have spent many delightful hours over both these works. . . . Of course to read in this way is as reprehensible as doping, and I never cease to wonder at the impertinence of great readers who, because they are such, look down on the illiterate. . . . like the dope-fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm, I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter.

And here’s my favorite passage of Nell’s, the one that most evokes the pleasures but also the frustrations of this book (I am making a mental note of the phrase “Frustration Index," by the way, which seems to me to be rich with possibilities):

The most direct probe of the intensity of our ludic readers’ needs to escape from unpleasant consciousness is Question 3a in the Reading Habits Questionnaire (scored in chapter 5 as part of the Frustration Index); namely, how would one feel to discover, alone in a strange hotel, that one had nothing to read. This question elicited a range of replies from the 129 students readily scored in terms of their affective tone and intensity. These dimensions are even more clearly discerned in the response of the 28 ludic readers who replied to this question. In approximate sequence of intensity, with headings selected on intuitive grounds to describe the tone of the response, these 28 replies are set out below (if more than one reader made a given response the number who did so is indicated in parenthesis):

No emotion: nothing
Displeasure: restless (2), frustrated (5), annoyed, peeved, a bit hassled
Anger: bloody annoyed
Agitated: manic, bothered, a little upset, let down, disappointed, bad, bitterly disappointed terrible
Anxiety: lost (2), quite lost, lost and miserable, really miserable, desolate!, awful/dispossessed, desperate

(My answer: Totally freaked out! Which would presumably come under "agitated"....)

Reading this made me slightly self-conscious as I consumed the latest light reading. First, a bona-fide enjoyable but undoubtedly quite trashy novel, the kind of thing I might have brought with me to Nell's reading lab if I was one of his subjects ("Please come to the first laboratory session with THREE English-language fiction books you have not read before and that you are enjoying very much. . . . If you read a lot of detectives or Westerns, bring three of them with you--NOT a tome on Minoan civilisation or a novel you've been trying to read for years"!), Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey. Then a much higher-quality kind of light reading, a very good young adult novel called Looking for Alaska by John Green. Green's got an amazing gift for characterization, you really can't believe how vividly he brings the four main characters here to life; the first-person voice is really excellent as well, and I love books that are set in schools. Entrancement rather than mere absorption, at any rate, in both cases.

Oh, and one more related link on the whole reading-for-pleasure thing, Clive James's literary education in sludge fiction in the TLS. (Link thanks to Book World/MetaxuCafe.) I don't think I'm going to adopt the phrase "sludge fiction" anytime soon, though; it lacks the celebratory quality of "trashy novels," my preferred term.


    I am glad to come accross you and your article when I am searching
    "Reading is Pleasure".
    I have found out that you are a
    Professor teachng Comparative Literature in the Department of English at Columbia University.
    I am a person enjoys reading very much. So I'd like to say it is reading that brings you to me.