Mar 8 2013 12:00pm

What’s Reading For Part 2: Books Do Furnish a Mind

What’s Reading For Part 2: Books Do Furnish a Mind

My post What’s Reading For? developed a lively comment thread in which the majority endorsed my Epicurean view that “Reading is usually the most fun I can have at any given moment.” But there were some very interesting dissenting voices, and I’d like to have a look at them too. There’s a way in which I do read in all of kinds of different ways, and in which they are interesting ways to think about how and why we read.

Part 1: Ways I read

SPC talks about “reading for cultural relevance”—reading one book you don’t really like to better understand another book, or reading something everyone is talking about so that you can be part of the conversation.

I do this. I don’t very much do the first part—or rather I do track books from other books but I don’t keep reading them if I don’t like them. I read half of Three Men in a Boat because of Have Spacesuit Will Travel, but I stopped when I wasn’t having fun yet. (I did a lot better on cultural appreciation via Heinlein with Rodin and Ming bowls.) The second part, though, I absolutely do. If everyone—for values of “everyone” which means “lots of people I talk to online”—is talking about a book, that book will be on my radar and I’ll look out for it. I’ll be reluctant to buy it just for this reason, and will most likely take it out of the library. Taking things out of the library frequently does lead to buying things if I like them. Or somebody will lend it to me, and then I’ll buy it. Or the other way around, I’ll be talking about some book to a friend and I’ll lend it to them. (I’ve really noticed this as one of the ways where having e-books falls down—I can’t lend them in the same way.)

Of course, this can have the failure mode that if everyone is talking about a book too much before I get to it then I can be actually put off it—which is generally terribly unfair to the poor book. Sometimes I read things years after everyone else because I was turned off by hype and then kick myself.

DemetriosX made the excellent point that reading is for pleasure in the same way that breathing is for pleasure. I really can’t argue with that for me either. If I’m awake and not actively engaged in something else, I’m reading.

Kukkorovaca made the “books do furnish a mind” point that was where I started from on all of this—reading things at impressionable ages has a real effect on who we are. I can’t deny that this is the case. Indeed, I wrote a whole book that’s largely about this, about how reading gives you the tools to cope with the world.

Sam Penrose considers the morality of re-reading something for the nth time and thinks that this is a less than adult mode of reading. I would argue that I get more out of things every time I read them, but I’d also direct his attention to Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built which has a very interesting discussion of this.

Trevor J talks about the ways reading is fun, and includes:

It brings new problems to think about. As a biologist, I love reading Stross and Bujold and thinking about the conundrums they come up with involving bioethics, informational ethics, how societies change and/or stay the same in response to stimuli, and the like. Sometimes these aren’t problems we have yet encountered, but just thinking about them sheds light on present conundrums. Sometimes thinking about how you might solve a fantastic problem gives you perspective on a real one.

This is fun for me, too, and this is something I always really appreciate. Give me a new thing, or a new perspective, or switch the angle on which I can see something and I am happy. Give me a new ethical problem and I can be happy for weeks. This relates to what I always say about literature being about human nature—we can say more interesting things about human nature if we can contrast it with alien nature or robot nature.

A couple of people said they read as self-medication or stress relief—reading affects their mood, so they read things that will elevate their moods, reading quite literally as a mind altering experience. I do not suffer from depression, thank goodness, because from the experience of my friends I think it’s literally more crippling than being crippled. For people who have long-term and permanent depression monitoring reading must be essential.

But I do read to cheer myself up when I am down in the short term way I do sometimes get down. The way I think of this style of reading is the advice from Chaucer Hath Blog “Take two Buffy Ye Vampyre Slayer and call me in the morning.” When I am in that state I do deliberately select things that will help. Cheerful isn’t enough, it needs to also be absorbing enough to take me out of myself. Comfort reading is comforting, and there isn’t anything at all wrong with being comforted when you need it. I remember reading A Million Open Doors years ago when I was reeling from a breakup, and getting completely caught up in it and taken away from my own misery. And then I got to the end of it and my misery fell on me like a collapsing wall and I consciously decided not to read Earth Made of Glass (which was as far as that sequence went back then) because Earth Made of Glass is a real downer. If I recall correctly I spent the next week alternating between Georgette Heyer and Donald Westlake.

Part 2: Ways I do not read

Lots of people compared reading to TV watching. I flat out do not watch TV, never, not at all. I just don’t care for it. I don’t even own a TV. So this is not a competition for me, TV is no fun, reading is fun, end of story. (This is also the answer to the frequently asked question of how I have time to read as much as I do. I haven’t voluntarily watched TV in decades.)

PhoenixFalls talks about reading for the desire to complete something out of sheer stubbornness. I do not have this. I will give up. I may try again when I’m older, but if it’s not working I put it down.

LaurenJ asks if this ties into skimming. I have no idea. I still can’t get my head around the fact that people skim. I literally don’t get it.

Other people said they read to be smarter or gain knowledge, which I pretty much flat out do not do, except when it comes to research reading as previously discussed. David Hartwell talks about reading bibliographies for fun. I have read the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad, and I have extensively mined the name list in Culhwch and Olwen, and I have compared these to the way people memorize names of Pokemon. But I don’t do any of this and I don’t really see the appeal.

In a related way, Danie G talks about reading certain things to feel sophisticated and be able to say you read them. I don’t do this, and I’m glad you’ve quit! It feels counter productive. And I hate it when people assume that this is why I am reading something, when it absolutely never is.

Blood Raven talks about feeling guilty because reading is so passive:

I read because it is fun and because it provides experiences (although secondary) which I will never have in my real life. But sometimes, I feel guilty because whenever I get some free time, I will open a book and start reading. Reading is a largely passive activity which doesn’t really require any creative intervention or active thinking on the part of the reader. I look at other hobbies like playing sports, visiting places or some creative activity (like drawing) or even plain gossiping, and all these activities require some active contribution from the individuals involved in them. We readers just devour the creative work of other people.

Of course, this is only the case when you read for fun, and that is why sometimes, I feel obliged to read to gain knowledge, and that reading all the time for fun is not a great idea. Then, there is also this feeling that other activities have better payoff than reading. For example, playing sports improves your health, creative activities develop your skills, while reading doesn’t seem to have such payoffs. Anyways, that doesn’t really stop me from reading, but it does make it a guilty pleasure. Wonder if anyone else has such feelings?

I don’t feel this way at all. I don’t think the things I do for fun have to have a payoff. I get a payoff from defending civlization and making art and building the future and mending the world, and I get a payoff from the things I put in the caregory of doing laundry, at least I get clean clothes. But I don’t feel guilty about the way I spend my my leisure time and you can’t make me. Should I be playing sports? Well, not me, somebody who physically could? Sure. But it would be better still if they were helping lepers. This is a path which leads directly away from any possibility of happiness short of sleeping three hours a night and joining the Peace Corps. Everything doesn’t have to be good for you. By all means get out there and defend civilization, exercise, floss, and earn money! But the rest of the time I feel no guilt whatsover about relaxing and reading my book.

Any more reasons for reading?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. TiemenZwaan
I'm a SFbookseller and one of the reasons I read, besides fun, is to be able to know which books to recommend to our customers.

A bit like winetasting I guess, but only then for books.
2. XenaCatolica
re: books, not tv
I'm in the mostly-books category, but I don't have a very visual (and by that I mean image-loving ) imagination or memory at all. And I often prefer writers who give me lots of clear visuals---Joe Abercrombie's scary guy covered with blue tatoos on one side? check. Descriptions of a magic forest that read like a garden catalogue in Donaldson? Check. This is part of the reason I love Gene Wolfe--he knows the visuals are important, but makes you wait for some of them. Anyway, because I don't invent images inside my head too well, television or movies are always a big jolt, something really very different from what's inside my head when I read. Still, I don't want that jolt very often.
Katy Cooper
3. katy.madellio
I would argue that reading for pleasure is not passive. It might not be as demanding as other kinds of reading--try reading a contract--but it does make demands of you. I think if you read for a pleasure most of the time, as I do, you can lose track of those demands. It doesn't seem like any kind of work because you're enjoying it. In the case of fiction, you have to keep track of characters and plot threads and you might also be tracking development of theme (though not in an entirely conscious way).

Every reader brings him or herself to the page; expectations and experiences inform how the story gets read. I sometimes think negative reviews are variations on, "This wasn't what I wanted; this wasn't what I like." Those preferences aren't something in the book but they are part of the dance of reading.

I'm not articulating this well; I'm just convinced we do more than let the story wash over us when we read.
Shelly wb
4. shellywb
How on earth could reading be considered passive? Physically, sure, as far as exercising muscles goes. But if you're not working your brain to interpret what's on the page to create the universe that's between the lines, you're not doing it right.
Pamela Adams
5. PamAdams
It has to interest me- my tolerance for reading what I don't like has dropped over the years. (I recently gave an Elizabeth Peters book 5 pages, flipped to the end to confirm my predictions, and decided that I couldn't put up with the journey in-between.) This is a challenge for my current studies- I am resisting writing the lit review for my thesis because it's so boring to do!

I just ordered the Spufford book from my library- agian proof that inter-library loan is one of the great gifts of the universe!
Steven Halter
6. stevenhalter
Reading, for me, is certainly not passive. If a book says something like, "They lived in palaces of light and glass", it is up to the mind of the reader to fill in just what that means and looks at. Nearly an infinite amount of detail to fill in with your mind's eye. And, note that everyone gets to fill that in differently.
Much of the time, when I am fully immersed in a book I don't even notice that I am reading at all. I am part of the story and the characters. How else do you get to walk a battlefield with Thucydides or overthrow the gods?
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
I don't know if it's passive or not. Often when I'm really reading there's no "I" there until later.
Steven Halter
8. stevenhalter
Jo@7:Yes, exactly.
edit:I would consider that "not-passive" as while the "I" is not in the frame, I am filling in all the details.
9. Gregory Benford 1
Surprising that so litle you say is about learning new ways to present yourself, through methods learned from reading.
I learned how to write from reading RAH + many others, and so I gather did you. Especially you & I learn from Donald Westlake, a terriffic engineer of plotting--surely, at least for me, the hardest aspect of wriitng.
Your own resident genius so deftly revealed in Among Others -- have we not all felt this?--shows this true depth.
Bob Blough
10. Bob
After thinking about this question, I really have no answer. All I can say is that I can't not read.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
11. spinfuzz
I may be a really odd one out here, but I never ever gave up on a book until about 3 years ago. Now I am a bit more lenient if the author is being mechanically obnoxious, but on the whole I have a habit of just reading everything. When I was like 7 years old, despite not understanding anything, I read through an entire Oracle manual my dad had. It doesn't occur to me that reading for knowledge might not be reading for fun. And with a lot of the literary writers I end up reading, because I really like them, I always felt that my Indian-Hindu upbringing excluded me from understanding a ton of Biblical references in texts or "getting" Freudian analysis until recently. I don't know, I guess I want to feel conversant. Definitely a immigrant insecurity now that I think about it.

I should also mention that I skim compulsively. I read basically everything I have about 10 times, and the most well-thumbed books around 50 times. Each reading picks up a different thread until I've experienced the environment of the book so many times and imprinted different details on different readings. I can't claim photographic memory, but my Spidey sense for similar sentence constructions and reading deja vu is quite strong. Recently, for college, I've tended to try and slog through the normal way, but it's so much slower than my usual method and ends up being less fun for me.
12. RobinM
At this point in life I can't not read. I complusivly read everthing around me street signs, shop windows, magazines, books and even the cearal box. I read to for fun. I read to dream of far off places in time and space or just across town. I read to learn how to make a bubbly pie or why the moon effects the tides. I enjoy reading for pleasure more often and since I'm not required to read James Joyce for class I can take it or leave it. Since I work in a library I'll try reading something new just so I can talk about it, but if I don't like I'll skim it (Breaking Dawn this means you.) or stop altogether. I do the same with television I can't not watch tv either. It's not as vital as reading but it's a big part of my day.
13. cgw
Funny about reading Three men in a Boat because of the Heinlein book. I read it because of Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog (and liked it).
I also read for pleasure but I do read a lot of books because I think I "ought to" or to learn something (i.e. non-fiction). But I have to enjoy it. I felt I ought to read All the Kings Men and found it to be the best book I ever read. I feel I ought to read Ulysses but have not gotten through the first chapter. The quickest way for me to go to sleep is to read something associated with my business.
I used to re-read my favorite books but I got to the point where I had read them too many times. I stuck them all in a box in the attic for a rainy day (paperbacks that is, I have hardback copies of my most favorite on on my shelves). I think as I get older I need to to keep reading new stuff due to the feeling that time is running out.
I have no problem setting down a book if it is not working for me. Generally if I get half the way through I will finish it.
David Dyer-Bennet
14. dd-b
C.S. Lewis also ought to be invoked in the discussion of the value of re-reading (An Experiment in Criticism).

I've only fairly recently, last few decades, learned to stop reading a book. There are an example or two of books I hated and read all the way through solely and only to prevent people from blowing off my opinion because I hadn't finished the book.

I often skip big swaths of visual (or other sense) description in books; it just doesn't interest me. I don't make images in my head anyway, so those passages really don't convey anything. (I make images in my cameras.)

I'm finding fewer and fewer new books I enjoy reading, and perforce doing more and more rereading. I'm afraid I'm going to lose some of my old favorites, or at least have to retire them for a while to cool off.
Dave Bush
15. davebush
OK, so I've been struggling with this since I read the question. The best I can manage is:

My brain has a need for information. The fastest way I've got for transferring information into my brain is by reading.

I get some satisfaction from conversation or TV or a play or a film, but they're not as good; the real McCoy is reading, and the higher the information content the better. SF has some of the highest information content per page going, so that's what's most satisfying.

So, I read because it satisfies my craving for information - that's close to reading for fun.

The best description of how I read is that the information on the pages goes into straight into my memory, there's very little going on during the process. I can't look at an English word without knowing it's meaning -in the same way that I can't look at a leaf and not see that it's green. As I read, I'm totally unaware of the colours / typefaces / my surrounding or how I actually read.

I start with a book in front of me not knowing what's in it, and end up with page 200 in front of me - and now I know what's in it. In between these two events I have no significant memories of the real world.

I can't even tell if I skim, because that would require an awareness of what's going on as I read that just isn't available to me.

I do have the ability to go back in a book and easily find information I'm not sure about - I know where it is, even if I don't remember it exactly. I'm a programmer and I even read technical documents this way, a specific talent that has always resulted in me being unofficial documentation reader in every place I've worked.

I can't read whodunits - I don't think about the story while I'm reading it, so I don't have any idea of who might be guilty.

I don't form or retain any visual version of anything in the book, so descriptions don't work on me. In general descriptions are dropped as I read. About the only character in the whole of fiction that I've got any image of is Miles Vorkosigan - and that's sketchy.

Thanks Jo for a very interesting question.
thistle pong
16. thistlepong
I never found the time to participate in the original discussion despite having it open for a couple weeks.

I read for pleasure. I read because my community has read. I read to understand. To comprehend. To make connections. I think that covers why.

The how is a little weird. I read in webs, mostly. I mean, there's required reading and recommended stuff and surprises for sure. But a significant portion of my reading life has been spent in "tracking books from other books" where other books ultimately reduces to a handful. The last book I finished owes that effort in a real way to a book I read in 1986. Turns out it also influenced some of the stage direction in that book as well.

There's a kind of fun involved, a pleasure that's (apparently) hard (for me) to articulate. There's a thrill at discovering an influence or seeing one play out. There's joy in recognizing an intertextual theme, a structural commonality, an historical tradition.

So sometimes a book will be pleasing not in itself but in context. That doesn't mean I never abandon a book, but it does make it kind of rare. A tangential effect is that sometimes it leaves books on my metaphorical to-read-pile indefinitely as I doggedly follow the hunt.

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