Wednesday 6 May 2009

The experience of reading

This is Keats; this pic is one of the first things that came up on Google when I looked for images using the terms "absorbed" and "reading." I don't know if I like Keats, to be honest, because I think I've read only one thing by him and I was teaching it to the laziest first-year English class that's ever existed. Nonetheless, he's going to be the mascot for this post.

Here at my "vacation resort" I have been pretty much trapped inside all day because the city's being pelted with southeast Asian-style torrential rains. I've been reading, of course - Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is very, very good - and I've created version 2.0 of my questions for The Reading Lamp.

But I just noticed the following comment was posted to my entry on Dracula and instead of answering Kevin's questions there, I thought I'd do so here so more of you will be likely to weigh in, as Kevin (and I) would like you to. Here's his message:
Hi Colleen,

I have a question, not about Dracula, but about the experience of
reading Dracula, in fact, the experience of reading any book, for that matter.

You say you read for hours in one sitting, which raises a series of
questions for me concerning the psychology of reading, in part because I can no longer read for hours, to sit motionless and disappear into fictional worlds entire, sadly.

When you read, do you see the scene unfolding in your mind's eye? Does the scene take on a life of its own, as it does, say, in a hypnogogic dream state? After you read a particularly beautiful sentence, can you recite it without re-reading it? Or only the gist?

I'm often astonished by how little I remember of a book, not only words in sentences but incidents and names of characters, not to mention the qualia of their inner lives. Very frustrating. Do you have this "problem?"

Maybe others will weigh in, too.
Regards, Kevin
First, let's bow our heads in mourning for Kevin's inability to sit reading for hours anymore. Joking (sort of) aside, I didn't actually think I could do that anymore, until I did so on Sunday. The pleasure of the experience was pretty closely linked to my surprise about its occurrence, to be honest.

I think I was able to do it precisely because I'm on vacation and not being confronted with work, in any of its myriad forms; in other words, I'm in an artificial situation that likely won't be reproduced until the next time I go on vacation. Once I'm back in the bookstore, in Toronto, I'll likely go back to snatching an hour or 45 minutes here and there between more pressing commitments. Being an adult kind of sucks, doesn't it?

But to answer Kevin's questions:

For the most part, yes, I do see the scene unfolding in my mind's eye, unless the book isn't entirely good - i.e., if the writing is bad or inconsistent, I keep becoming aware that I'm reading words on a page, which can be incredibly annoying. This happened several times while I was reading Dracula, particularly when I found myself distracted by the inconsistencies in Van Helsing's grammar noted in my previous post.

That said, I'm usually never completely unaware that I'm reading; when I have become entirely unaware of the fact that I'm engaged with a book, I've lost track of time and space, and have found a book to be counted among my all-time favourites: The Brothers Karamazov, Cloud Atlas, and Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio come to mind.

Next question: No, I can never recite sentences after just reading them, no matter how beautiful. The lines that have been seared into my memory are the ones I've also taught: e.g., when standing on the stage of the Globe Theatre in London with a tour group I was able to roar out that "You do me wrong to take me out of the grave!", etc, but that sort of conscipuous display of readerly nerdiness is an exception for me.

The final question, which isn't phrased as a question: I don't remember a lot about most books I read either, but the more I remember of a book is generally reflective of how much I enjoyed it, how much it affected me. And my memories of books are almost always of how I pictured scenes in my mind rather than the quality of the writing or examples thereof, even though writing quality will make or break a book for me.

So, gentle readers, what say you? Can you read for hours? Quote beautiful passages? Remember the minutest of details? Do tell!


Sam said...

I thought that I had lost my ability to sit with a book for hours. I blamed it on the lure of the internet and just the fact that I have more to do now. Then I got the flu and couldn't handle books, TV or the computer. After about 4 days I could read again and was so grateful that was all I did for days between sleeping.
I also can't give any kind of book review to save my life no matter how much I enjoyed a book. I know I liked it or didn't, but in my head I'm moving on to the next one.

J.G. said...

In my household we call it "Book Death." That means that when a book is really good, the entire house could burn down without the reader noticing, provided that the reader's own couch or chair didn't catch on fire. Very relaxing, in an out-of-body kind of way.

As for lines, characters and other details: If I have studied a book in school, I will remember a lot more. Reading for pleasure is much more about the generalities. As one character says in The Big Chill, "Sometimes you have to just let art flow over you."

Anonymous said...

At the beginning of a book I am very conscious of the author's language, especially in an older book, as well as whatever narrative devices are used to get the story started. But then, in the best books, I shove off from shore and am in the book -- and want to stay there.

They say the most lasting memories are the emotional ones and that is true or books. The more I loved it or detested it or was angered by it, the better I remember.

Stacy said...

I am glad to know that I am not the only one who doesn't remember everything about every book they read. I thought I had some kind of retention problem. I do remember quite a bit about the books that I love but mostly I remember the feelings that I experienced while reading them, and usually I can recall the timeline of my life through the book I was reading at the time. I do have a visual play running through my mind as I read. I have not lost my ability to sit for hours at a time and get lost in literary worlds, it's just that I don't have the opportunity to do so as much anymore. Usually when I come across a particularly beautiful sentence, it will stop me in my tracks and I will repeat it out loud or read it over and over but I don't memorize it and I don't write it down either which I really think I should start doing. Create a commonplace book or something so that I don't lose that sentence forever. I do remember whole passages from children's books either because I reread them repeatedly as a child or have read them over and over to my own children. Love J.G.'s term 'Book Death'.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

"Reading for pleasure is much more about generalities." Ack! Put me in the exact opposite category.

J.G., you're reading Swann's Way - what pleasures are there besides Françoise and the asparagus, or Marcel hugging the hawthorn bush, or the two steeples crossing each other? "[T]he little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds".

Tastes is what they is, I know. My taste is for art that does not flow. I want writing that pricks, cockleburr prose.

Anonymous said...

Colleen, thanks for mourning the death of my inner reader!

JG's "book death"/out-of-body experience is what I remember most about reading as a child.

In the long ago, my mind's eye saw more but understood less.

Now it's the reverse.

Hopefully my godless prayers will be answered and my old reading self will be jolted back to life.

Anyhow, I have been experimenting with a simple reading technique.

At the front end of a story, say, the first 25-50 pages, I slow my pace way down and make a concerted effort to visualize the characters and the setting, to make them as palpable as possible.

Gradually the words disappear and fictional reality emerges.

This works marvelously well for Proust whose sentences are like so many Russian nesting dolls. At Amateur's mention of Swann's Way, I smell fresh cut grass, my madeleine cookie and lime-blossom tea, and there's pleasure in that!