The pleasures of reading

I have been thinking lately about the different kinds of books I read, and the different kinds of pleasure I get from reading them.

There are those I read primarily for the enjoyment of a well-told story. I recently read two books by Daniel Silva, an author recommended to me by a co-worker, who purchased The Kill Artist for me for my birthday to get me started. The Kill Artist is the first in his Gabriel Allon series, though as it happened I read The Rembrandt Affair (tenth in the series) first, because I found it at Goodwill after my co-worker recommended Silva but before my birthday.

I can enjoy a well-told story without learning anything new, I suppose, but good storytellers generally take a reader’s mind to new places. Not necessarily geographic places, though there’s generally enjoyment in learning about new places.

There are visits to other times in history (The Rembrandt Affair relates the experiences of a young girl whose family died at the hands of the Nazis, and The Kill Artist explores the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians). There is a window into the heart and mind of a character with a different background from that of the reader, different career and hobbies and way of life. In the Gabriel Allon series, one sees the meticulous art restorer at work, as well as the spy/assassin – improbably combined in a single character. (But then, how probably are many of our lives?)

The mysteries by P. D. James unfold at a more leisurely pace, but offer worthwhile philosophical musings on morality, justice, and human nature. (They also spend a bit more time than interests me on the architecture of various buildings, but if I were better able to visualize the structures being described I would probably enjoy it more.)

Lately I have been enjoying a series of “cozy” mysteries by Nancy Atherton, the Aunt Dimity books. I’m pretty sure these are the first books I have read where the title character is dead before the book even starts. But being dead hardly stops Aunt Dimity from continuing to be aware of what is going on in the lives of people she cares about, or finding ways to get the attention of main character Lori Shepherd, with whom she communicates by means of writing in a blue journal.

Cozy mysteries are fairly undemanding of their readers. I do not have to deal with gratuitous sex or violence, or much of the non-gratuituous sort either. People are sometimes thoughtless and unkind – as they are in real life – but they neither cause nor experience the tragic losses that tear at one’s emotions in many novels. A steady diet of them would be somewhat like cookies and ice cream at every meal, but like the occasional dessert they are an enjoyable treat at the end of a long day or a busy week.

There is a very different sort of pleasure in reading non-fiction, such as the combination of history and economics in Why Nations Fail (one of my recent posts). There is the pleasure of the intellectual stimulation itself, as well as the growing understanding of how and why certain things have happened as they did. It answers questions I have wondered about, as well as some I had not thought to wonder about, and gets me to think enough to think of new questions that still need answers.

There is the pleasure of reading a book because someone I know has read it or is reading it. It gives a sense of a shared experience, as well as the opportunity to compare one’s impressions with someone else. No doubt that’s part of the attraction of being in a book club, as well as being provided with a list of books to read and – in the case of the library-based book club I belong to – the books themselves, for (usually) a full month.

There is even a certain kind of satisfaction – I’m not sure I would use the word pleasure – in reading a book that I do not particularly enjoy but which I have thought I ought to read someday. I just finished catching up with the readings from Augustine’s City of God, to keep pace with the Facebook group that is reading it.

It seems to me that Augustine is rather repetitious, and gives far more examples than needed to make a point. He jumps around so much in recounting Rome’s history that I have only a bit less hazy a notion of it than I did before. But then, I was convinced of the truth of his central point before he started, while I have to assume that at least some of his original readers really did need to be persuaded. At least now I will be able to say I know what the book is about from having read it rather than having read about it.

I’ve been thinking about all this in part because of reading various people’s opinions about the differences between “literary fiction,” “mainstream fiction,” and “genre fiction.” I started looking at these because I was surprised when one of the Aunt Dimity books got a bit less cozy by presenting the problems of the homeless. Some reviews complain of the “treacly preaching” or that a cozy is supposed to spare one from having to think about difficult issues. I actually liked the introduction of a more serious theme, but it surprised me to find it in this genre.

While more serious social issues are generally not those included in cozies, I did find more than one article saying that it is in genre fiction that one finds novels that deal with social issues today. In particular this is true of crime fiction, hardly surprising since crime is itself a social issue.

This is very apparent in certain writers’ work, such as that of Kathy Reichs. Her novels have dealt with issues such as internet child pornography, war atrocities and the trafficking of endangered species. I can’t say there is pleasure in reading about suffering and death, but it is better to be aware of these issues than to be blissfully ignorant. Public awareness is one step toward change.

As I read discussions of different kinds of fiction, I also came across value judgments about the relative merits of each. They seem to be broadly grouped into those who think that genre fiction is a sort of “guilty pleasure” while literary fiction is pleasurable in a more worthwhile way (because it requires more thinking on the part of the reader), and those who think that such a distinction, if it was ever valid, is increasingly less so, and that one should not feel guilty for enjoying one’s favorite type of novel, whatever it might be.

I have nothing much to add to the thoughtful analyses I have read on the subject. But if you haven’t had occasion to follow this literary controversy, here is a sampling of various people’s thoughts on it.

This article sums up the characteristics said to typify genre and literary fiction – while acknowledging that there is a good deal of crossover.

This post claims that “genre fiction seeks to entertain,” while literary fiction attempts to answer a philosophical question.

This interesting blog post has a different take on the difference: “Genre fiction seeks resolution,” but in literary fiction, “ambiguity is preferred.”

This lengthy paper argues that there are real differences between the two, and between the type of pleasure one gets from reading them, but that this does not imply a value judgment of one over the other.

I have to admit I rather like that last one, since I do enjoy a good deal of genre fiction, and I do not want to feel guilty for that. I am in the middle of an epic fantasy right now, and it seems to at least raise a few philosophical questions and suggest some ambiguity, but one can easily just enjoy it for the story and not think very hard about any hidden meanings. (Unlike the literary novel Book of Clouds which I read recently.)

But I do enjoy the pleasure of thinking, of pondering philosophical questions and considering hidden meanings. I just don’t like reading books that work on stimulating the intellect but don’t bother to tell a good story.

One Response to The pleasures of reading

  1. Thanks for the linking, this was a great read.

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