Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What Is the Nature of Reading, What Are Its “Rules” and Its Gifts? (Guest Post by Brogan)

This is a guest post by my sister Brogan, who has contributed reviews to this blog in the past as well as last week’s Teaser Tuesday post.

Since I started writing book reviews, I’ve been thinking about books: what makes one choose a book, what makes a book work, and just what is this business of reading all about anyway? I feel that reading a book is about entering into an agreement with the writer. The writer extends a promise, a lure, and the reader agrees: I will enter into your fantasy. I will follow the roads you take me down; I will let you determine what happens next. And in exchange, the writer gets the reader’s time and attention.

This has nothing to do with the actual monetary exchange for the book, because many books are borrowed, some are bought without being read, some are chucked halfway through. The agreement then is more about the art of the book than its commerce, the why of the author writing it in the first place, the tender wavering of nerve cells rearranging themselves as a reader is impacted by what they’ve read.

This agreement is entered into on often seemingly tenuous grounds: someone reads a book jacket flap, someone is drawn to the cover of a book or its title. Sometimes the reader chooses based on a blurb or a review, or a friend saying a book is fabulous.

Being someone who has 50 books out on my library card at any one time, I know just how important the selection of a book is (those are, after all, just the ones I bring home!)—and yet I still think there is something deeply mysterious and elusive about finding a good book. It’s an incredible feat of chance when the meeting of reader and text hits that note of harmony.

To declare the biases on my side of the agreement: I am not one who is easily pleased. Where some people might like 90% of the books they read and love 50% of them, I probably like 50% of the books I read and love about 5% of them. But that love, when it is there, is an experience so intense that it is in the realm of alchemy—it’s the magic of a response, of an interrelationship between two things, self and text, and in that sense it is even intimate, between self and writer.

The other part of my bias is that I also write, which means that I sometimes confuse where someone else is taking a story and where I would take it. Not that I relinquish control with difficulty: once, when my sister told me she rewrote the endings of books if they really didn’t work for her, I was both horrified and amazed at this possibility. It is quite unusual for me to feel that I can do that, after the fact. Although I do have to say that since this suggestion was made, it has happened to me on occasion that I’ve said to myself that X didn’t happen and Y did at the end of such-and-such a story—or in one exceptional, but very clear case (The Petty Details of So-and-So’s Life by Camilla Gibb), I allowed the whole thing except for the very last page, which I arrogantly treated in my mind as an editorial error—I willfully pretended to myself that the last page did not exist and was just not part of the story.

But I think I may have been unclear with this last declaration, in saying that I’m a writer. It isn’t that I’m constantly considering how I would mould the text. It’s that when I read the description on a book jacket, I’m immediately heady with the expectation of how I will feel as I read the story.

There’s that great story by Ron Evans (a Canadian Chippewa storyteller)* about how electricity is first brought to an African village, and a westerner is there to witness the arrival of the first community television set. Everything stops in the village for about two weeks because everyone is watching TV. Then life goes back to its usual pace. The puzzled westerner asks why no one is watching the TV anymore. “Oh, we don’t need it, we have the storyteller,” someone tells him. “But don’t you think the TV knows more stories than your storyteller?” “Oh, yes. The TV knows lots of stories. But the storyteller knows us.”

I think that is the same magic of a very good book: as a reader, you feel known. You feel that in some way the story is either about you or for you. This reminds me of an E.M. Forster quote I saw on the wall of a big-box book store: “I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.”

What happens, then, when you project a book onto the path ahead of yourself and it really isn’t what you expected?

I’ve experienced this twist in expectation as both neutral and negative. The Perpetual Ending by Kristen den Hartog and Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott (read review) were both books that I read with particular expectations, and then halfway through I thought: “Oh. Wait a minute. That’s not what this book is about.” And I could then let the books be what they were, and let myself be open to what they were offering.

With Good Things I Wish You by A. Manette Ansay, I anticipated a totally other journey than what the book was about, and when I finished it I was actually annoyed because I had thought it was promising one thing (a romantic journey) and it gave me another (an intense exploration of non-affection and selfishness in love relationships).

When the agreement is broken in this way, whose fault is it? My expectations are my responsibility; a book cannot possibly please everyone… but at the same time, there are some books that will displease readers in similar ways, so it’s not just accident or personal taste.

How fragile is that promise then, how tender the line between writer and reader! How amazing when the accident happens in the other direction: When I read The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, I had no idea what to expect at all—I don’t even know if I had read the book jacket—and I thought the story was enchanting (if a little uneven).

Or how strange when you find yourself reading a book at breakneck speed, and then finish it and decide you didn’t even like it.

I think, in the end, the mystery is intact. I will continue to stumble upon books, like some, dislike others, and sometimes, by astonishing good luck and to my great surprise and satisfaction, find some of those gems that make me remember why I read in the first place.

*This story was created by Ron Evans in 1982 in the context of storytelling revival.


  1. I try not to know much about a book when I start reading it. Whenever I have an expectation of what a book is about and it turns out to be different, I often feel cheated or lied to at first and then I have to sit and go back over what I have read so far to decide if I understood it and then if I liked it. Or just to find out what I think of the actual book I have read so far! It can be a little exhausting!

    I've never really thought of my "relationship" with the author of the book I'm reading as an agreement (surprising since I have a law degree!). But I guess it is an agreement of sorts even if I'm not familiar with the author.

    The idea of re-writing the ending of a book whose ending I don't particularly like is interesting. I had a similar discussion with my husband yesterday when I wasn't completely satisfied with the ending of a boo I recently read. I wish the author had done a little more with the character. But I didn't feel slighted, more like I was being too demanding and not respecting the author's choice!

    You given me a lot to think about Brogan! Thank you for 2 wonderful posts!

  2. How nice to hear your reflections on reading & expectations, Amy. I wonder if this conflict of expectation is in part because as readers we want something "new" but we don't want to stray too far outside our comfort zone...
    I agree about 'exhausting'! How hard it is to 'undo' an expectation, once it's happened!