Why Do Readers Read?

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Scholars and general-interest readers alike read to learn, of course, and many of us read for work, but self-identification as a reader stems from a prior, seemingly simpler motivation: we read for pleasure. Readers read because we like to read, and some of us like it so much that we have found ways to make it our life’s work. So where Alberto Manguel would propose thought as the origin of the desire to read—“We read to understand, or to begin to understand” (7)—I want to suggest instead that feeling may be primary in underwriting our attachment to reading. It is the presence of that pleasure that pushes the reader onward into the text. This is the position from which Alan Jacobs begins his exploration of reading: “Forget for a moment how books should be read: Why should they be read? The first reason—the first sequentially in the story that follows but also the first in order of importance—is that reading books can be intensely pleasurable. Reading is one of the great human delights” (Pleasures 10). That delight is meant, more than anything, to be indulged. And thus Jacobs’s guiding principle for those who wish to know what to read: Read at Whim.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 But where exactly does the pleasure in reading lie? Does it manifest in the same ways for lay readers as it does for scholarly readers? Long has pointedly argued that “[a]cademics tend to repress consideration of variety in reading practices because of our assumption that everyone reads (or ought to) as we do professionally, which usually involves a cognitive or analytic approach to texts” (11). Again, this may be overstated; significant threads of literary studies in recent decades have explored reader reception and engagement, but those threads have remained somewhat marginal within the field. Given that differences in how we read, which seem inevitable, are inevitably accompanied by significant differences in why we read, it is worth considering how the different pleasures that different readers find in the process might speak to one another. The long tradition of educating lay readers to become scholarly readers has likely lent us a sense of the instructive value of the pleasures of scholarly reading, but what might scholars learn from the pleasures of general-interest readers and the reading they do?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Manguel describes the pleasure in reading in ways that evoke long journeys, new discoveries, passionate love affairs: “We read to find the end, for the story’s sake. We read not to reach it, for the sake of the reading itself. We read searchingly, like trackers, oblivious of our surroundings. We read distractedly, skipping pages. We read contemptuously, admiringly, negligently, angrily, passionately, enviously, longingly. We read in gusts of sudden pleasure, without knowing what brought the pleasure along” (303). We do not read in any one consistent way, in other words, but instead are pushed and pulled by the text and swept along by the desire for more. That desire, and the pleasure that can result from it, often lies in the encounter with the unexpected, the discovery of that which we didn’t quite know we were looking for. In many cases, this exploration is bound up in what Peter Brooks described as “reading for the plot,” the unfurling of a story with its many conflicts and coincidences, revelations and reversals. We read, in these cases, to find out what happens. Or, in reading, we enter into another universe, into other lives, and, in so doing, temporarily escape our own. We read for the ways that we are bodily taken up by a text. Or we read for insight into our own world, for self-discovery, for advice. We read for comfort. We read for the deepest kinds of personal understanding.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The appeal to the personal, emotional, affective purposes in reading has at times been experienced by scholars of literature as a disciplinary regime to which they are required to submit. Deidre Lynch’s wide-ranging exploration of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century institutionalization of literature as an object of love, for instance, contains a powerful critique of the extent to which “those of us for whom English is a line of work are also called upon to love literature and to ensure that others do too” (7). Enforcing that affective role—particularly given the degree to which the twenty-first century economy consistently devalues that which we do for love—is a means of erasing the labor involved in academic work, and Lynch is right to resist it. But my goal in this chapter is not to impose a requirement on scholars that we commit to love as the prime mover in our relationships with the materials of our fields; rather, I hope instead that all of us (professors and professees, readers ordained and lay) might simply reconsider the power of a personal, emotional, affective relationship to reading and the role that such a relationship might play in drawing others to reading with us, in making visible the joys of what scholars do so that it might be more appropriately valued off-campus as well as on.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Perhaps even more dangerously, the appeal to the delight that we took in reading as children runs the risk of nostalgia, a fond backward-lookingness that can transform every sense that things are different now into a sense that things are worse. It is perhaps ironic (or perhaps just human) to discover, despite the work I’ve done toward uncovering and debunking this narrative of decline with respect to the relationship between literature and newer media forms across my scholarly work thus far, that I am just as subject to that nostalgia as anyone. I remember being able to read for hours as a child, utterly undistractable until someone forced me to put the book down and go outside already, and I long to recover that feeling. What I miss most is really being able to single-task, having the attention span and the absence of competing demands necessary to focus on a book to the exclusion of all else. I’m far from alone in this yearning for what reading once was, perhaps needless to say, but that yearning is inevitably romantic in its gauzy depiction of what reading can or should be, and the longing for that more innocent time may in fact mask a bit of condescension. Thus we see Lynch’s evaluation of the nostalgia she senses in graduate student complaints about the ways that the professionalized practice of literary criticism in which they are trained “smothers” the love of the material that led them to undertake the study. That nostalgia, she points out, is itself in fact a pathway to professionalization, as one of the key methods by which scholars have separated themselves out as professionals is precisely by “ascribing charisma, authenticity, and a capacity for true feeling to amateurs” (351). This is a trap that I hope to avoid: when I suggest that there might be something for us to learn from the ways that general interest readers read, I do not necessarily mean to hold those readers up for our praise or our scrutiny—not, at least, unless they are actual readers with whom we are interacting, rather than some hazy idea about readers that we have developed as a strawman for or a potential avenue of escape from our own travails. But I do nonetheless want to consider some of our ideas about amateur readers, and in particular how we understand their experience of reading for pleasure.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 For such a key motivation for textual engagement, after all, pleasure in reading has been soundly denigrated in much criticism, both of the scholarly sort and of the sort carried in the mainstream press. Saying that one “enjoyed” a book, after all, does not carry much substance. Too personal or inwardly-focused an attachment to books risks association with the self-indulgent, and even the auto-erotic. Ways of reading that are too closely tied to pleasure, such as reading for the plot, are waved off as superficial. Ways of reading that are too focused on the interior lives of characters and the identifications they inspire are dismissed as therapeutic. And the books that many readers find most pleasurable—genre fiction of many different kinds; young-adult fiction; chick lit—have too often been treated as uninteresting, insufficiently serious, and even detrimental to health and intellect. Long suggests that this dismissal of whole categories of reading and the pleasures that they generate is bound up in the scholarly desire to control what is understood by reading, shoring up scholarly authority by promoting the “tradition of Great Books” to the exclusion of all other readerly experiences (30). That argument doesn’t account for the significant role of non-scholarly professional literary critics—see Michiko Kakutani—in defining and policing contemporary literary taste, of course, nor does it account for the enormous diversity of texts being studied in English departments today, a sampling of which might be found in a quick perusal of a recent Modern Language Association convention program. But Long’s larger point is worth considering: “may readers not find something worthwhile in even a ‘bad’ book?” (30). And may they in fact not find something of importance to themselves in “bad” reading practices? However much the role of professors of literary studies might include encouraging student readers to shift their attention to texts of particular importance, or to engage in particularly instructive ways of reading, this education need not include a dismissal of the ways they read on their own, even—or perhaps especially—when those ways of reading are bound up in pleasure. In losing pleasure, professionalized readers may lose access to something crucial to full engagement with and understanding of the role that reading plays in many lives.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 And, in fact, what pleasure is replaced by when it gets pushed aside is too often anxiety: anxiety about whether we’re reading the right stuff, or reading for the right reasons, or reading in the right way. Robert Scholes traces one line of these anxieties about literary reading to the rise of the New Critics, and in particular to Brooks and Warren’s disdain for popular verse: “What is important is that this attitude—the wholesale ‘correction’ of popular taste—taken up and magnified in hundreds of classrooms across the country, had the effect of purging the curriculum of the very poems that had once functioned to give students textual pleasure, thus preparing them to take an interest in poetic texts that did not display their hearts so obviously on their verbal sleeves” (16). Reading poetry, under the rule of the New Critics, became work, and often intimidating work at that, leaving too many readers convinced that they could not read and understand poetry. Which is to say that students may have a point when they complain that too many of their classes destroy the pleasure of reading for them; the easy pleasures that reading held for us as children cannot survive in an environment in which popular taste is something that demands correction.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This is of course not to say that reading is never, or should never be, work. There are important pleasures to be gained from wrestling with difficult texts and difficult ideas, and it is the role of teachers to help initiate students into those critical pleasures. As Alan Jacobs has noted, “some forms of intellectual labor are worth the trouble,” as they make us better readers and better thinkers, and as the virtues that he suggests difficult texts can lead us to—“strength and concentration and patience and humility”—can in turn produce even “greater delights” (Pleasures 50). Developing the capacity and desire to engage seriously with difficult material is a core aim of higher education: building the focus and curiosity and patience necessary to work through a complex text, as well as the knowledge base and insight to delve into that text’s references. But developing those skills and uncovering the greater delights to which they can lead requires careful modeling, leading students from the more accessible to the less. In so doing, it might be possible for us to seek ways of building on rather than undermining the more common experiences of readerly pleasure they already know.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 Or that they once knew. Students in increasingly early stages of their educations are taught methods of reading that put them on the defense: they are set on the watch for things they might have missed; they seek patterns, symbols, and (sigh) themes. They are encouraged to set up a perimeter between themselves and the text to be sure that nothing escapes. In the current educational environment, much of the blame for this can be laid at the doorstep of testing: reading is treated as a functional practice designed to lift The Answer from a text where it can be expressed in conformity with the rest of the class, all of whom seek to echo the test creators’ wishes. Not only is there no room for interpretation in any rich, imaginative sense; there is no room for anything other than terror at the consequences of getting the answer wrong. The result, as Timothy Aubry has explored, is that the complex act of engaging with a literary text and negotiating its meanings is reduced to “getting it”: “‘Getting it’ of course analogizes the act of interpretation with the act of consumption…. once you ‘get’ the book… your work is presumably finished, and you can relax. You have it in your possession, which means you are now among the elect and are thereby entitled to appreciate what has become your property, the book’s meaning, without further struggle” (47). But more sophisticated modes of textual engagement require forms of cultural privilege from which many readers have been excluded. Ideally, the role played by scholars is to assist with the struggle that difficult texts require and to convey the pleasures to which that struggle can lead. This is, in fact, the role we try to play in the classroom; is it possible for us to play that role with the broader reading public as well?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 It is worth considering, however, the extent to which—intentionally or not—the role that the academy actually plays in the general reading public’s relationship to textual difficulty is precisely to create the exclusion many readers feel. Elizabeth Long suggests that the isolation of “academic literary discourse from a broader middle-class audience” is in part attributable to professionalization within literary studies, and in particular to the rise of “specialized technical terms” that work to close broader audiences out of literary discourse, even where those critics possess a “genuine desire to link literature to its social and political concerns” (71). Perhaps needless to say, that idea may not sit well with many scholars in literary studies. We bristle, understandably, at the suggestion that our field is somehow not entitled to a specialized expert language, which resonates all too well with the anti-theoretical, anti-intellectual dismissal of work in our field, and of the humanities in general. We might be justified in asking whether Long’s own field of sociology lays itself fully open to the people that it studies, or whether it is written mostly for insiders, using an insider vocabulary. But that response, inevitable as it may be, risks distracting us from a question we might consider more carefully—as I will do in the next chapter—about whether scholars might adopt more fruitful ways of addressing broader audiences, whether we might develop a mode of code-switching that permits us to speak with one another in a technical, precise vocabulary while nonetheless fully engaging with broader publics, translating our work across those linguistic barriers in ways that can welcome those publics into engagement with more complex texts in more complex ways.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 3 In the meantime, however, we might reflect on the reasons our critical vocabularies might be off-putting to those broader publics, not only because they do not understand, but also because they understand perfectly well the insult those vocabularies pose to the reading practices of the uninitiated. As Eve Sedgwick argued about the problem scholars have had in sustaining alternatives to the hermeneutics of suspicion, such as reparative reading, the vocabulary deployed in describing those alternatives was often “so sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary” that no scholar worth their salt was willing to explore much less embrace another path. Sedgwick interprets this as an issue with “the limitations of present theoretical vocabularies” rather than resistance to modes of reading such as the reparative, suggesting that new modes of affective engagement with the materials we study might become more possible with the development of better terms (150). In other words, scholars resist exploring readers’ use of cultural materials as “equipment for living” because the language used in discussing that relationship makes us cringe. And the language we use does matter: for Sedgwick to describe many readers’ motives toward the texts with which they engage as “reparative” grants them a seriousness of purpose that we are too able to deny when we fault them for privileging emotion or identification or self-improvement. But engaging with readers on their own terms, and then welcoming them into our terms rather than using those terms to dismiss their reading practices as somehow suspect, might help create common ground between us, rather than making those readers the subject of our expert scrutiny. If the pleasure of the text—including, or perhaps even especially, the most mass-market novel we can imagine—lies in what it can help the reader feel, rather than dismissing that engagement as somehow suspect due to its lack of critical distance, perhaps we might instead take that feeling, and its description, seriously. If a text serves a therapeutic role in the lives of its readers, if a book is treated as “equipment for living,” that relationship might be more complex than we assume. The therapeutic may not always be about conforming to an oppressive status quo; it may be, as Sedgwick argues, about “extracting sustenance” from the status quo in the face of the many injuries inflicted by everyday life (150).

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Readers, in other words, may in fact have compelling reasons for privileging the emotional in their interactions with books. Or they may not. Alberto Manguel describes two roles that readers play in their interactions with the texts they read: “that of the reader for whom the text justifies its existence in the act of reading itself, with no ulterior motive (not even entertainment, since the notion of pleasure is implied in the carrying out of the act), and that of the reader with an ulterior motive (learning, criticizing) for whom the text is a vehicle toward another function” (184). It may well be that readers want nothing more from the books they read than that they be books, enabling for the reader nothing more than the act of reading. As scholars for whom the act of reading is always inevitably motivated (the text is always either a source for writing, or an object for teaching, or, in all too rare moments, an avenue of escape), such a relationship is puzzling, to say the least. We should not, however, assume without question that such a readerly position is naïve.

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