Why Do We Read?

Why do we read? In her recent book, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, Maureen Corrigan responds that we read“…to set off on a search for authenticity. We want to get closer to the heart of things and sometimes even a few good sentences…can crystallize value feelings, fleeting physical sensations, or sometimes, profound epiphanies.”

Harold Bloom in How to Read and Why concurs. “Ultimately we read—as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree—in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests.” Yes, we don’t have an easy time knowing ourselves. Sometimes a good book makes our task a little easier, to say nothing of the multiple pleasures it provides.

We read ourselves into literature without concern, as we are in science, for whether or not it is true for others, and if so, for how many and to what degree. Instead, the truth of any literary expression is immediately true for the reader because it corresponds to his or her experience or provides a language for it in a way that had not been available before.

In a letter to Melvin Tumin published in this week’s New Yorker, Saul Bellow expressed the relationship between literature and science this way, “The work of an artist…sets up the hypotheses and tests them in various ways, and it gives answers but these are not definite. However, they need not be definitive; they sing about the human situation.”

Yes, we might say, that is true for me, true to my own experience. This is my story. I have no idea if it is anyone else’s story. But it is the way the way I felt. Or I had not realized its truth until I saw it on the page. That is what a good book is all about, what I seek in a good book anyway and because they are not hard to find, why I keep reading.

Of course, there are more personal reasons why we read, reasons that are not always acknowledged and that change over time, especially for those who have read from their youth. A friend has written to me:

“There is no one answer as to why I read. I first read from loneliness. I read from desperation and to fill my empty time. I had no friends, no playmates. Books were like insulation—filling the empty spaces, protecting me from the chill of loneliness.”

Again Harold Bloom has written: “Imaginative literature is otherness and as such alleviates loneliness.” Does reading literature really have this effect? I am dubious. Enjoying the company of my literary friends is not the same as lessening my isolation. Indeed, sometimes great literature makes me feel all the more isolated when I realize that I will never be able to create such a story or think so brilliantly as the author of the book.

A character can startle and provoke me by something he says and I can derive some consolation from our common views. Yet knowing I am not alone in my belief is one thing, loneliness is something else and its reduction bears no necessary relationship to the recognition of shared belief.

My friend continues, “As I got older, I needed an escape, not only from loneliness, but from my limited surroundings. I read to see other places, to meet other people, to become a larger person. Life didn’t seem to be helping me with this goal, so I turned to books. I felt wise, worldly-wise. I knew the thief, the adulterer, the junky. I’ve always felt an urgent need to experience everything. Yet I am timid at reaching for actual experience. Call it what you will—fearful, cowardly, nervous--I prefer to take much of life at second hand. This has led to some odd contrasts in my life—such as the wide knowledge I had of sex before I had experienced so much as a kiss.”

She concludes, “Now, why do I read? I read for all of these reasons and more. I read to find my own unexpressed thoughts. I read to find answers. I read to find questions. A life without answers is an anxious one. A life without questions is a deadly boring one…”

How eloquent. How wonderful to know that there are others who read for the questions not caring so much if they are answered but simply for the pleasure of thinking about them for a while. And how rare to hear someone speak so honestly about why they read.

Why people read is a mystery and why people read what they read is even more mysterious. In the final analysis it is a highly personal thing and I think it is good to ask yourself these questions every once in a while.


A Novel of Ideas

More than one critic has called Frederic Tuten’s The Green Hour a novel of ideas. Yet the reviewers then proceed to describe the story and leave out the ideas. I want to talk about the ideas. Are they to be found in the story itself?

In college Dominique falls in love with the free spirit, political radical Rex. It is a mutual life-time devotion. While Rex wanders the earth, Dominique buckles down and becomes a highly regarded art history professor, spending much of her time in Paris where every once in a while she bumps into Rex and together they resume their romance. Then she meets Eric who courts her with his millions. She is torn between the chaotic, impoverished Rex and the stable, wealthy Eric.

Meanwhile she overcomes a bout of cancer, travels back and forth between Europe and America, and eventually tries to find a life with Eric at the mansion he built for her on Long Island. (“We’ve been fine,” he said, “but I’ve never been in your heart.”) As much as I enjoyed the story, in fact, I enjoyed it immensely as it is a beautifully written romantic fairy tale, it is clear that Dominique’s conflict is without a solution

Are we to understand that this is the central idea Tuten wishes to impart? That maturity requires abandoning idealism and accepting the fact that a life of reflection does not come for free? “Her lofty ideas had taken her where she could live among a painting’s pillars and columns, in a temple where miracles happened, but they could not pay the mortgage on the house or caulk a sinking boat.”

Dominique is writing a book on the French painter Nicolas Poussin that has taken her forever to complete and on more than one occasion has given her an excuse to return to Paris. Throughout the volume Tuten scatters ideas about Goya and Poussin’s paintings (passionate Goya—Rex(?) and calm Poussin—Eric(?).

“…she had moved her area of interest from Spanish painting and Goya in particular to Poussin, for her as an artist of greater formal and intellectual complexity, greater mystery, though lacking in warmth and perhaps wisdom.”

“She was in fact not sure of what Poussin had intended by that light, but in her writing she had matched it to what she considered The Arcadian Shepherds’ theme: the omnipresence of Death in the center of life.”

Most of the ideas I record while reading a book are scattered randomly throughout the text. In the case of The Green Hour, a good many were different than those I recorded when I read it a few years ago. However, the book meant as much to me on second reading as it did the first.

Here are a couple of ideas I made note of the first time around: “The idea was the act. Actions were ideas enacted but, for her, the idea was its fullness and existed sufficiently without need of the act to complete it. As when love, when first born, takes hold and gives body to all activity rushing from it, the conception lasting longer than its temporal manifestations, the conception enduring while the body falls away in repetition, in boredom, in aging, the draining away of everything corporeal.”

“Do you think poetry changes anything, anyone? Auden says no. I know it does. But he’s just protecting the sanctity of his craft, lest he admit that poetry may change us for the worse as well as for the better.”

And at second reading: “How hard, she would say in that future moment of wisdom for the young to understand how time and experience flatten out all pain, how even one’s suffering finds—if not purpose—some balance and redress in experience yet to be had.”

“There was always an imbalance in love—the one who loved and the one who was loved. Most of her life she had denied it, desiring above all a total equality in love. But nothing in her real experience proved her theory—her wish—correct.”

The Green Hour is assuredly a novel of ideas—ideas concerning art, love, and what it takes to live a scholarly life. While I have read other novels far more dense with ideas and wisdom, there is much to admire in this novel and much to recommend to those who have yet to read it.

And for those interested in the tradition and practice of keeping a commonplace book, I pass along once again one more treasure from The Green Hour:

For some time since her operation, and without publication its goal, she had been jotting down without order or pattern, anecdotes gleaned from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, noting down those matters or events which moved her. One day these notes and fragments of thought might form a coherent mosaic and reveal to her her own spiritual autobiography as well as biography of her time.”


What Great Art Does

A few weeks ago Kevin Hartnett on The Millions asked a question that looms large in my thinking. Quite simply he wonders “…just what is it that great art does.” He prefaces the question by acknowledging that it is one thing to judge the formal properties of a work of literature and quite another to assess its effects.

The question is not unlike the one Sven Birkerts posed in his American Scholar essay on Reading in the Digital Age. For Birkerts the principle criterion of a literary work’s impact is what we recall from reading it. And the best Birkerts can say is that we retain is “a distinct tonal memory…” In contrast, Hartnett confronts the question far more concretely.

One way to think about what a work of art does is to imagine the counterfactual—how would my life have been different had I not spent the last three months reading War and Peace? The answers, I think, tend to group into three categories: The social experiences I had because of the book; the ideas the book incorporated into my life; and the aesthetic moments that were opened to me because of what I was reading.

In his essay Hartnett proceeds to amplify on each of these categories in discussing the various ways Tolstoy’s War and Peace affected him. In terms of the social consequences of reading the book, he starts talking to others who have read it. He learns that his father-in-law read the book in two feverish weeks, that his friend read it while he was serving as a Peace Corp volunteer, and he describes episodes of book to his friends. He claims he almost never tells anyone about the stories from the books he reads yet the vividness and range of experiences described by Tolstoy almost compelled him to describe them to others.

Then there are the intellectual effects of reading this great novel. Hartnett writes, “I have read other novels where the controlling idea of the story came to serve as a lens through which I viewed my days, but never has this happened quite as thoroughly as it did with War and Peace.” What better measure of the effects of fiction than a “lens” for making sense of the increasing complexity of ordinary life? Think of how a lifetime of reading great books can multiply and strengthen the ways we view the world. Those who doubt the impact of literary fiction on one’s life have to confront this widely voiced observation of dedicated readers.

In the end, Harnett admits he doesn’t read novels so he can talk about them with others or for their ideas, but rather for the “pure aesthetic moment that comes from seeing life perfectly distilled into words.” You are reading a novel and you come across a chapter or a page that moves you deeply, that gives you pause, and prompts you to read it again. The memory lingers and no doubt germinates over time and takes root like any other experience that exerts a powerful effect on your life.

I admired Harnett’s attempt to pinpoint the various ways literature can affect us. Rather that making vague claims about whether it does or doesn’t, he has given us three important markers to measure the consequences of reading. This is the issue that first drew me to literature and it continues to preoccupy me. If I didn’t think reading novels influenced my life and didn’t offer me more than a distraction for a while, I would give up worrying about its effects and might even stop reading altogether.


Re-Reading a Forgotten Book

The other day I chanced upon a volume on my bookshelf that I recall reading a few years ago. It was at the end of the row and so it was more noticeable than the other books on the shelf. It was The Green Hour by Frederic Tuten.

I took it from the shelf, looked at the inside back page, and saw that I had listed several page numbers where the passages I had marked were located. I checked my Commonplace Book to see if I had copied them and yes, they were there and that I had read the book in 2002--a mere eight years ago.

If you had asked me what was the book about, I could not have told you. I would not have been able to tell you the story, the names of the characters, what happened to them or really much of anything about the book. All I remember was that I had liked it and that I thought it was a quite special love story. So I took the book from the shelf and began reading it a few days later.

Nothing about it seemed familiar. Not Paris, Dominique, Rex, Professor Morin, Kenji—nothing. It was if I had just picked it up and started to read de novo. I am still reading it and once again enjoying it immensely. How could I have forgotten it, forgotten virtually all of it except that I liked it enough not to discard it along with so many others in deciding what books to save each time we packed up to move yet again.

A friend writes: Don't you love it when a book you have previous read and enjoyed seems totally new when you read it again? The book is the same but we are different which makes for a delightful and sometimes unsettling reading experience.

What is it that we remember in the books we have read? And if, in fact, we remember very little, how then do the books we’ve read influence us? Could it be that they scarcely affect us at all?

In his recent essay (Reading in a Digital Age) in the American Scholar, Sven Birkerts poses the same questions:

What—I ask again—what has been the point of my reading? One way for me to try to answer is to ask what I do retain. Honest answer? A distinct tonal memory, a conviction of having been inside an author’s own language world, and along with that some hard-to-pinpoint understanding of his or her psyche. Certainly I believe I have gained something important, though to hold that conviction I have to argue that memory access cannot be the sole criterion of impact: that there are other ways that we might possess information, impressions, and even understanding. For I will insist that my reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it.

Here Birkerts argues that what we usually don’t recall anything specific in the books we’ve read. Rather we remember an impression, a “feeling” or a “sensation” and occasionally an idea or a character.

And so whatever influence books have upon us has to be very general, a non-specific effect that we sense but cannot identify with any precision. Learning without awareness. We no doubt learn a great deal but that derives from the cumulative impact of years of reading, book after book, one year after another.

Make a list of the books you’ve read. You might be startled. Now tell me what you recall from each one.

We learn styles, values, points of view, a certain sensitivity about matters of the heart and mind. We hear people voice views that are similar to our own and since we admire or respect them, our views are strengthened. We develop tastes and a way of being, and while we clearly don’t imitate the characters on the page or espouse the same ideas, we do learn to discriminate between ideas we do and don’t believe, between what is true and what isn’t. And what we learn continues to evolve over the course of our reading days so that what was true 40 years ago may very well not be today.