To Read Or Not To Read: Is That the Question?

In her 10/2/16 New York Times Book Review column, Anna Holmes states that readers should skip parts of a narrative, “particularly if an author is writing without clarity of purpose or showing off.” In general, I agree with this approach, especially if a writer is wasting my time as a reader by not fulfilling his/her responsibilities in crafting the novel. However, as I’ve told myself many times when I’ve become bogged down in a passage and wanted to escape, I may be missing something important that will illuminate the whole work. The problem may be more with me than with the writing. In certain cases, this has proven true, and I was grateful I had stayed involved.

reading-copyBut there have been other times when moving on was exactly the right thing to do. I’m thinking of David Mitchell’s highly acclaimed work Cloud Atlas. Mitchell has been called “A postmodern visionary and one of the leading voices in twenty-first-century fiction, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokovian love of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending, philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, and Philip K. Dick.”

Okay. High praise. And for about two thirds of the novel, I bought into the hype. I was engaged, enjoying Mitchell’s virtuoso performance in shifting points of views, time periods, and settings. Then something changed, not only in the narrative but also in me. I began to feel exploited as a reader, recognizing that the author had become more interested in showing off his talent than in deepening the themes he’d originally set up. I stopped reading and felt no remorse. Rather, I was taking a moral stance, refusing to get sucked in further to the writer’s narcissism.

Later in Anna Holmes piece on reading, she quotes Doris Lessing, who has claimed the following:

There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag—and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are 20 or 30 will open doors for you when you are 40 or 50—and vice versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.

I somewhat agree with Lessing’s observation that certain works may not be suitable for a younger reader. They will be more appropriate as we age and have acquired the background experience necessary to fully apprehend the author’s intentions, though my teenage grandchildren certainly belie this approach. They have been able to read The Iliad (and other classical works) in Latin and comprehend its many themes. When they read it 20-40 years from now, they’ll discover even more layers than they did originally. But that doesn’t deny the value of their first experience.

I also have serious objections to the first part of this Lessing quote. To assume that an individual’s instincts will guide him/her in selecting suitable works seems naïve at best. It also assumes that the person has received enough literary education to make good choices in reading material. If I have never studied literature in high school or college, I haven’t a context for selecting what is good writing and what isn’t. And, yes, often we must read books in those classes that we otherwise would not choose to. But that’s how we break down our defenses against learning and open ourselves up to worlds otherwise out of our reach.

What are your thoughts?



How to shut down discussion in a reading group

Dear Fellow Readers,

An experience I had the other night in my small reading group has caused me to think about how to read and respond to literary fiction without shutting down discussion. One of our fellow readers tends to immediately jump in and express her opinions before there’s an opportunity to explore a book’s many themes and characters. In this case, she said the book made her feel claustrophobic and it was difficult for her to finish it.

What can you say after a statement like that? I probed a little, asking what it was that made her feel claustrophobic, wondering if it was something in herself she was reacting too and not just the book. As Lionel Trilling once said, novels can read us as much as we read them. I forget what my fellow reader said, but the damage had been done. Her strong reaction dampened further comments. It’s natural to dislike certain characters just as we do people we run into in actual life. But as readers, don’t we want to understand what it is about the character/person we dislike? What psychological elements are at play in this situation? It’s an opportunity for self-reflection and self-knowledge, one of the main reasons I read.

We were discussing Italian author Andrea Canobbio’s prize-winning novel, Three Light-Years. The title suggests that the narrative will move at a lightning pace, but it doesn’t. It’s a sedate stroll through the lives of its three main characters, Cecilia, her sister Sylvia, and Claudio. The narrator, another character, has a minor role as the son of this triad, and the narrative is his attempt to piece together what had led to his birth.

The author/narrator does a masterful job of exploring the emotional dynamics (or lack of them) that brought these three people together, and as a reader I felt it deeply when Cecilia and Claudio failed to connect more fully. Therefore, I had hoped my fellow readers and I could have a serious exploration of the psychological dynamics operating between these two characters, as well as the cultural pressures they lived under. Both had been married previously. Both were still bound in multiple ways to their pasts. It seemed like a rich opportunity to learn something both about Italian culture, if one can generalize that much, and also about the interior lives of these three characters. I also had hoped we could discuss the work’s structure, images, and more.

When it comes to reading and responding to literary works, I believe it’s important to take the inductive approach, saving our judgments until we’ve not only finished reading the book but also until after we’ve been engaged in a thorough discussion of it. Otherwise we are prejudging and jumping to unwarranted conclusions. We also are missing out on the kind insights other group members can bring to the conversation.