Reading pleasure

What does it mean to enjoy reading a book? For me, this is not such a simple matter. I’d been thinking about this question a bit when I came across these posts from This Space and Book World, both about the various kinds of enjoyment people find in their reading. Steve from This Space writes: “I read what I need to read; that is, what gives me pleasure (but what is pleasure? Maybe that’s the key question here).” I like this question; it makes sense to me, a person who can spend a lot of time analyzing emotion, to ask what pleasure is. And Sandra from Book World wonders how to direct, and whether to direct, her daughter toward more challenging books — the question here is whether she should let her find more challenging books on her own or guide her a bit.

There are so many ways to enjoy a book, so many kinds of pleasure to be had out of books, that to say I enjoyed a book or liked it becomes kind of meaningless. If someone were to say to me, just read what you like, I’m not sure what I’d do. I like … almost everything, or if I didn’t like it, I might very well have enjoyed not liking it. There’s pleasure to be had from dissecting exactly why I didn’t like something. I can enjoy a book because I got absorbed in it and had trouble putting it down — as happened when I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy earlier this year — and I can enjoy a book that isn’t absorbing exactly but is super smart and complex and beautifully written — as happened with Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. And I can enjoy a book that’s downright boring in parts, like The Tale of Genji, but which has a compelling atmosphere, a dream-like, quiet quality to it that stayed with me through the weeks I was reading it. I like books with a strong emotional pull; reading Prep was that kind of experience, where I felt something for the main character. But I also sometimes like books with another kind of emotional pull — not the kind where I feel something for the characters or story, but the kind where I’m loving what the author does with language. Pale Fire is one example of this. It’s not a book where I came to care about the characters or story; rather, I loved the word play, the exuberant voice; I responded emotionally to Nabokov’s love of language.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had out of reading books that are difficult, the intellectual pleasure of struggling with a text. I have no idea how to teach this to other people, though, or if it’s teachable at all. I grew up reading and re-reading things that were fun and easy and felt like pure pleasure (Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder), and also picking up difficult things now and then, things that were a bit beyond me at that point, and I was the type of child who would stick with the book and struggle with it pretty much no matter what. I think I did this for a number of reasons, some admirable, some not: it’s good to want to challenge myself, good to try new things, probably not so good to stick with a book just to be able to say I’d finished it — for bragging rights — or to prove that I’m a certain kind of person, a certain kind of reader.

I’m interested when people say they had another kind of experience, one that involved finding more difficult or challenging books on their own, at their own pace, and that this didn’t involve the kind of struggle I described above. I’ve heard people say they wished they’d been introduced to “better” books earlier on rather than spending so long reading whatever they came across, mainly not-so-good books and coming across more “serious” books at a time that felt late to them. In a way, finding the “good” books, the canonical books, later like this sounds to me like a positive thing — it could, perhaps, lead to a simpler pleasure in reading them, to a more direct relationship to them, so that they don’t feel like a duty or like a training course in reading. But I’ve also heard people with this kind experience lament their years spent reading “trashy” books and express insecurity about not having a long history of reading the books people consider worthy.

I’m not sure what my point is here, except that, for me at least, reading pleasure is a complicated thing. In a way it would be nice if my experience of reading were simpler and more direct — if I didn’t have a rather complicated relationship to books. But that’s just not my personality.

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