How to read a book
In my last post I mention what I want from fiction: escapism. Briefly, I described the reading experience I seek. Since then I’ve been thinking, usually involuntarily and at odd moments, about the reading experience.
Growing up, my favorite place was the library. I am a voracious reader, and especially love it when I can sit and read. I simply love to read and have since my youngest days. My parents potty trained me by parking me on the toilet and giving me books. In school, I almost always had my Reading textbooks finished in the first week or two. I would read a paperback on the bus. I would read during lunch at school. I was shy and reading gave me an escape.
In high school, I was caught reading a SF paperback in the back of the Reading class yet my grades in the class were up there. Happily, that teacher recognized my situation and after I showed by answering a quick quiz that I really had already read my Reading class book cover to cover, she invited me to join the speed reading class instead. Before the end of the school year, I was reading different books in the bus on the way to and from school.
At each school (I was an AF brat and we moved every 4 years) by the end of the first year I would have read all the SF in their library and also in the local library. Successive years I migrated to Historical, Fantasy and the Classics. In all my time reading, only three books have ever “defeated” me, by preventing me from being able to read them all the way through: War and Peace, The Satanic Verses, and a hefty physics tome I attempted when I was 11. War and Peace defeated me because it spent so much time describing the most miniscule detail about clothes, etc. that I got bored with it. With The Satanic Verses, the opening scene was simply so jumbled and incoherent that I could not get into the book at all. The physics book, well, I just wasn’t ready for it as I didn’t have the necessary math background to fully understand everything I was trying to read. I’d have to design that nuclear powered starship later.
I present that background so that you might see my “credentials” as a reader.
I respect that as I was going through school, Reading and eventually Literature classes were more focused on “understanding what the author was trying to say”. I appreciate the training I gained from those classes but see them as separate from reading. Those classes are more appropriately called “literature appreciation” classes, I think, as they teach you to appreciate the authorship and wordsmithing. Of course, in kindergarten and elementary school they teach you how to read the words and make sense of them. But once you have that down, it’s pretty much a focus on “what’s the author doing? Why is he saying this?”
I have several friends who say they enjoy reading, yet seem unable to discuss a book without discussing how they liked the author’s approach to this or that trope, or how well developed his philosophy is, or how the book is so representative of an idea, or how it so well tells the story of, for example, class struggle.
I have never belonged to a book club that meets to discuss books. Maybe that’s how they all talk and express their delight with the book. Yet, while I can just as easily discuss with them that type of analysis, I sometimes can’t help but wonder if they ever read for pleasure.
Or is it the case that no other author writes simply to tell a story?
The vast majority of my reading is, and obviously I speak only of fiction here, for the purpose of escapism or simple enjoyment of a good story. I don’t care and I don’t look to see what theme the author might be writing about. All I care is that it be a good story, I’m not out to analyze the book. To me, a book is simply the author’s way of telling me the story he or she wants to share. Good versus evil, personal crisis, class struggles…they’re all just world building foundations or backgrounds for the story. Nothing more, nothing less.
That reading approach of mine, just reading for the sheer pleasure of it, at times also makes it difficult for me to grok the furor around various books. To focus on just three, The Golden Compass trilogy, the Harry Potter books, Stranger in a Strange Land were all good reads, good stories. Sure, I can see parallels between entities in The Golden Compass if you want to draw them. Harry Potter introduced magic to a lot of young kids. Stranger in a Strange Land might have been an exploration of society and how we’re all linked together.
Each of those books, read just for enjoyment and a good tale, is just that: a story with which to kick back and escape reality for a bit. Maybe the author really was, no matter what they publicly state, presenting some hidden agenda. Let them. Kids, properly raised and taught to think, can tell the difference between reality and fiction despite what revered authoritarian figures might think. There are other books with just as close parallels between real entities, they give you a world pre-built if you base your stuff on them. If you want to scrutiny every word in a story for hidden meanings, hidden agendas, conspiracies, or whatever, in some ways I pity you. Understand, I’ll defend your right to read that way, but I can’t see how you can truly enjoy reading a story that way.
I realize much fiction of old was used to teach a lesson. In some ways, I acknowledge that is part of the responsibility of being an author. That’s what our legends and mythologies are for, in the end: to present a way of life that we should look up to and strive to emulate and to present those lessons in a way that captivates the listener or reader. They’re present those lessons without teaching to kids and people that might not sit still for a dry lesson. But they’re also meant to entertain, to fire our imaginations, to get us excited about the participants. That, to me, is the driving force to being an author.
We still need, appreciate, and want such heroes and heroines. We love stirring fights where right beats might and the hero wins out in the end. At least in the West. But we don’t need to dissect every story we want to read. Not every story we write has to have an ulterior agenda, hidden or otherwise.
Some stories are just that: stories to entertain. All of them can be simply read for escapism.