On Reading · Personal Great Books

Why I Read

I spent a lot of time thinking yesterday about reading and books and whys and wherefores. Too much time, probably. It started with my post about The Savage Detectives, but carried through as I was reading other blogs, as I tried to work out what I really meant when I posted on my Savage Detectives experience, and what I mean when I talk about the way I read or respond to books.

I almost feel like I need to post a disclaimer: “Blog poster may or may not agree with what she has written here and elsewhere now, yesterday, or tomorrow,” which makes me sound really wishy-washy, but which sometimes seems 100% accurate. It’s not that I’m indecisive, but I have a terrible habit of typing or speaking without thinking through what I’m saying or mean, thus leaving behind an inaccurate picture of the sum of my thoughts. Further, I’m always open to new ideas and new thoughts. I don’t always see in black and white; everything is nuanced. Sometimes there are subtle shade of meaning or difference: I agree with you (myself) in this case but not that, sometimes my ideas and conceptions transform as time passes. And I sometimes see in black and white; some things just are. But it’s all a process, I’m always searching, and I’m sure I sometimes sound like I’m not, like I’ve made up my mind, but I haven’t. Or rather, I’ve made up my mind about some things but not others: books, for instance–I’m not wishy-washy when it comes to my opinion on a given book. The way to approach books, to understand them, to talk about them–that I don’t know yet.

I return to my theme from yesterday: I know how to approach a book emotionally, but how do I quantify it? I called emotional criteria “bad criteria” but this isn’t fair, it isn’t what I really meant. That is, I don’t mean that I disparage emotional responses, hardly–all my best-loved books are emotional responses. No, I mean I don’t know how to explain emotional criteria, not always. I can say I loved Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm because Rebecca charmed me, but I can’t explain my reaction to The Savage Detectives, why it hit me like a ton of bricks, why I simply knew it was good, why I couldn’t understand that at the 200 page mark, but I could at the 500 page mark.

Jillian had a thought-provoking post yesterday about reviewing vs. personal responses to books, right-brains vs. left-brains, how these types think differently, analyze differently, and I’m afraid I left a completely meaningless response, but it triggered more thinking, more thoughts. About all the different ways to respond to literature, why we all respond differently, why there are so many different ways to respond. Thoughts, ideas, that are all half-formed, but that pointed to two truths: 1) I am always searching and 2) I can see both sides of the puzzle: the emotional response, the analytical response.

I’d like to find the balance where I can both say “I loved this book” (for intangible reasons) AND “this is why this book is good/great” (tangible reasons). The emotional response is easy, it is natural. But the analytical response, this is not easy, it requires thought, it requires work.

I read a lot, all sorts of different things. Much of it is never discussed here, as I usually reserve this space for books, and much of what I read are articles. Economic news, political news, environmental news, building news, opinion pieces, arts pieces, movie pieces, run-of-the-mill new, all sorts. They inform, they educate. I read books, most of which are discussed here. Some are classics, some non-fiction, some fluffy light-weights. But this year, so far, most of  my reading has been outstanding. And I’m reminded how much I like the “difficult” books.

The truth is, not all books are equal. Some are just plain better than others. These are usually the sorts that make the lists. But how we define what is great, what is good, what is a classic, that is a mystery. We can’t really predict, not truly, what will endure. My own experience leads me to agree that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” (Italo Calvino) These “great” books, these classics–they’re the ones that don’t let me go, that I can’t escape. Returning to them with gusto this year–and reading one or two that aren’t–I remember why I prefer them. It is a response both emotional and eventually, as I learn, analytical. It is critical. It is visceral.

And this takes me back to the early days of this blog.

Way, way back, before anyone really read this, I proposed for myself a goal of searching out the greats, of trying to learn why they are so classified, what elements make them great or best. It was an analytical goal. But I’m learning that it is an emotional goal as well. It’s one I’ve neglected, but as I find myself returning to the best books, I find I don’t want to abandon it again; these are too good, too powerful to ignore. I want to be abducted by these books, to have my world-view turned upside down, to lose myself to their seductions. And quite honestly, I can’t find this with the lesser books.

This is why I read, why I read the great books. I’d just forgotten it for a while.

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13 thoughts on “Why I Read

    1. Complete agreement there! That’s the nice thing about all these book blogs, it makes it easier (hopefully) to find great books.

  1. I struggle with this too. Everything for me is a gut reaction: I love the book, therefore it is good. But why? I have no idea. That’s when reading blogs and reviews is great. I celebrate the emotional response. If I could only have emotion or the ability to analyze while reading, I would choose emotion. Often, I can write what I “feel” but cannot think/analyze it if I don’t write it, and if someone were to tap me on the shoulder right after I finished writing it and ask me what I thought, I’d have to reread my words to remember. I think with my typing fingers. Which is why I’m a writer (in progress.) 🙂

    1. I received a comment on another post to the effect that we are always growing as readers and therefore our responses to books are always being enriched. I really love this thought because it both validates the “gut reaction” but also suggests that there’s always more. We are ALL always in progress. I’m sure you will be obligated to learn more analytical ways of approaching books as you progress through your education career, but even for those of us who just read without formal study, we still have something to look forward to. It never ends, and that, I think, makes it great.

      1. Yes, there’s always more! I am in total agreement with that. And we should not wait to begin expressing our thoughts until we have it all figured out, or sound like literature professors. We learn best through active exploration, through throwing out our ideas, grappling with them, carving out new ones, discarding the old ones. We learn through experience, and as we gain more reading experience, we notice more, we become more attentive to detail, we are able to express what we think more clearly and articulately. And all that can only be achieved if we are active participants in the process, I think.

        Ha! I used “thought-provoking post” to link to Jillian’s post as well. 🙂

        1. I think I’d be a bit let down if there weren’t always something more. Even just knowing that there’s something more than can be gained by rereading (and rereading) a favorite book is cheering. And it’s great to know that if we keep exploring and experimenting we CAN grow, that we don’t have to stay stuck in the same space forever.

  2. I never know when I sit down to write a review whether it’ll turn out emotional or analytical. When I started typing out my thoughts on Great Expectations, I first went with the analytical approach: I wrote a few words about the plot and tried to cover exactly why I thought it was amazing. But halfway through the post I stopped, went back and deleted it all. Then I went with my emotional response.
    It depends on the book, really. And yet we’re never done learning from it. There are books I read one, five, ten years ago. I had a reaction to them, a perfectly valid one. But I see more in them now. If I once loved it, I can now explain why. If I didn’t, I can tell whether I should give them another try or why they weren’t right for me. We never stop learning from books, that’s what makes them so fascinating.

    1. I think you’re right, some books are easier to respond to analytically and some emotionally. Where we are in our lives and as readers probably matters too. (Not to mention personality!) But the ability of the same book to reach us in a different way over and over again–I agree, totally fascinating.

  3. It is never a bad thing to be reminded, or to remind oneself, about the reasons for doing anything, but especially something as intensely personal as reading and something as potentially communal as blogging.

    The “debate” about the “right” or “legitimate” way to review books will probably be around as long as blogs, or some form of blogs, exist. Paid critics and the elite will always insist that a true “review” has to follow certain criteria. The rest of humanity will insist otherwise, either quietly and kindly or by thumbing our collective noses at the establishment.

    For me what is always important and should be tantamount in any blogger’s mind is a clear understand about why one blogs and the conviction to not be swayed by others’ opinions. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grow, change, or re-evaluate once in awhile. But our soul purpose in this venue shouldn’t be to try to be what someone else wants us to be.

    I’ve found that I prefer emotional responses to books with at least a little analytical stuff in there to give me an idea about why a person had that emotional response. I can get the purely analytical from anyone. But I would rather read about the experience of a true book lover, not a person whose passion is literary critique. And I don’t want to sound like I am denigrating those who do that. I respect them very much (despite complaining about them at times) and I’ve learned so much from those reviews over the years and discovered wonderful books and movies because of them.

    Staying true to oneself while being open to growth was never more true than when it comes to what a personal blog should be all about.

    1. Oddly enough, I find I don’t really care about the “right way to blog” debate, only about the way I want to blog—and I’m constantly re-evaluating just what that is, what is most meaningful to me. I want to grow as a reader, so how does my blogging affect that? I read all sorts of book blogs, from the emotional response to the analytic response, and I find myself wanting to take a little bit of each of these. So the question becomes, how do I synthesize all these various thoughts into making the blog what I want it to be? All while always searching, hopefully growing.

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