Wednesday 16 July 2008

A short manifesto on reading for pleasure

When I started working on my PhD, I promised myself that if I ever got to the point where I couldn’t read only for pleasure then I would drop out, no questions asked. Luckily or unluckily (I’m not always sure), I never reached that point and so am currently still plugging away at the damned degree (but the end is finally in sight).

(Let me say that while I don’t believe in burning books, I do think I might be unable to resist setting my dissertation alight once it’s been defended; I dream as well of beating it with a stick, but not so much that I’ll put out the flames.)

I mention this because most of my peers confessed that within our first year of PhDing that they had become incapable of sitting down with a novel (related or not to the work they did) without pencil and critical mind sharpened and ready to start marking shit up. I pitied and scorned them, and maybe part of me still does, but the joke’s on me – I’m the only one from my year who hasn’t finished yet!

However, I just can’t bring myself to regret taking 3 solid weeks off just to read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I don’t regret reading any of the other many excellent books unrelated to my research that I’ve read over the years. I regret the terrible books I’ve read, yes, but I regret them for their own sake, not for the work they kept me from doing.

But this makes it seem as though I had any choice. I find it literally impossible not to be reading books just for my own edification. I can’t take breaks from reading. I read, that’s what I do. I can’t even get on a bus or subway without a book. I love reading almost more than anything else (my hubby will be pleased to note, however, that he would probably win in a fight between himself and books).

I think this total abandonment to reading is related to the way I read (I mean besides obsessively). Muting the critical faculty has never been my problem. My problem has been that ramping it up has tended to mean destroying whatever emotional pleasure I get from a book, and that’s just sad (the one exception that comes to mind being John Ford’s incomparable Renaissance tragedy, 'Tis Pity She’s a Whore).

I once loved Shakespeare’s King Lear – the first time I read it, I marveled that anyone could ever have written it. It seemed impossible that anything that good could exist. Having worked on it research-wise, however, it’s now basically just a hideous collection of meaningless cliches to me. Part of me wishes I’d never read it, because then I wouldn’t know what I’ve lost.

The flip side to this sad inability to have my full critical mind function in tandem with the mind that reads for pleasure and lingers over sentences just because they’re beautiful is that I don’t have to work very hard at being convinced by stories. Not that I don’t note and scorn plot holes, weaknesses, etc, because I do – but I did that before.

No, what I’m getting at here is my natural ability to enjoy literature by becoming so completely immersed in what I’m reading that I forget the “real” world exists. The hair on the back of my neck stands up (as described in my recent post on Jane Austen). I laugh loudly. I cry. I get angry (or enraged, as was the case with Timoelon Vieta Come Home).

I still have the full experience, in other words, although as I type this I realize that this probably doesn’t come through incredibly well here in blogland. I guess I like to write with some malformed vestige of my extensive edumacation in literary criticism in evidence, but I like to read like I did when I was a kid – like books were magic which promised, well, everything.

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