Reading · Teaching

Stories, Friends, and Order in the Universe, or Why Do We Read?

Today was that day in class when, compelled by the chaos of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, my seniors tried to define what kind of reader they are.
The novel is basically about reading. It begins with a Reader trying to read his new copy of If on a winter’s night and careens through the lives of an Other Reader, a Non-Reader, a publisher, a translator, an author, a student, and loads of other people. With all these different perspectives on text production and reception, it’s kind of natural to try and orient our own reading style. (It’s also easier to talk about ourselves sometimes than it is to sort out the labyrinth of the latter half of that novel in an hour, so it’s a common digression.)
But it’s important too, you know. Self-knowledge and all that. Good in itself. This is just the readerly fragment of ourselves.
There are a number of ways to read that my friends, colleagues, and students have described over the years. Today we mostly fell in to five camps:  those who read for character, plot, form, “aesthetics,” and “immersion.”  Some of these will need defining, as you can already see.
People who read for character view every new book as an opportunity to meet new people. They may love or hate them, but mostly they read because they are fascinated by people—by their motivations, their quirks, their backstories. These people tend to need to find someone they like or identify with (in fact that’s the main goal, probably, to find little bits of themselves in other characters) in order to finish the book. If all the characters are reprehensible, it’s hard for them to keep turning pages. These are the people who suffer when movie versions are different too—when the people they loved on the page are altered on screen, they take it very personally.
Those who read for plot want to see how everything turns out. These people read the fastest, skimming when they need to, and are often the ones who can’t recall details, and they certainly can’t quote lines, but they can summarize neatly; they know the story cold. These people tend to like action-packed adventure books or stories with twists or puzzles. Reading is an adventure—a puzzle to solve, a game to finish.
The “form” folks appreciate the structure of a book. They like repetition of scenes, especially when they differ slightly and mean something a little bit different each time. They read a book like a musical score, looking for motifs and waiting for the variations. This is fairly cerebral reading, and they appreciate clever authors with somewhat mathematical or mechanical minds. There are exceptions, of course—some books (and authors) build structure in more organically, like a vine rather than a skyscraper, but these readers still appreciate the order inherent in the story.
The “aesthetics” group is not just the Ivory Tower snobs (it may also be, but not exclusively.) These folks read for something striking—a particularly beautiful image that takes shape like a sculpture in their minds, or a line that feels more like poetry than prose. These are the ones who read with pencils in their hands, not wanting to lose a section that sings in the middle of a 500-page novel. For these folks every new book has loads of potential: who knows what gems they may find inside? They read to discover and to connect and to feel.
To Feel. The last group I add today is a response to my class today.  Four of eighteen students (English Literature and Language majors) said they read for “immersion.” When pressed, some of them said things that made me think they appreciate world-building and like to get lost in cultures and scenarios different from their own lives. They like science-fiction and fantasy but also historical—anything that makes them forget their own world for the duration of the book and completely lose themselves in the book. Otherwise it’s not really worth the time for them. They need to feel another’s experiences so tangibly, it’s like they are living the scenes as they unfold. This sounds to me like classic escapism, but some of them argued for aesthetic and intellectual pleasures as well.
Later in the quarter I’ll ask them if they have a favorite literary theory, and I’ll see if they match up.  Maybe the Plot People will turn out to be New Critics, and the Character Crowd will favor psychoanalysis. The Form Folks will certainly be Formalists (I hope), but what will the Beauty Bunch be? Romantics? And the Immersionists? Maybe they’ll all love Reader-Response. More likely, though, they’ll all surprise me again. Probably we’ll all need tee shirts like team jerseys, so we can easily find our tribe out in the world. We all read so as not to feel alone, after all.

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