Why Read? Why Read Fiction?
Every time I attend a book club discussion one of the topics I go home thinking about is: WHY DO I READ? Maybe it's a result of wondering WHY OTHER PEOPLE READ? because the discussion often seems so far removed from why I read. Obviously, different people read for different reasons and these reasons influence what we choose to read and how we react to whatever we read. So I shall ponder the original question: WHY DO I READ?
Summary: Here's the short point form for your reading assistance. The rest is really just me talking to myself. Feel free to skip.
1.SETTING - LANDSCAPES WHICH ARE IMPORTANT TO ME
2.SET IN CANADA
4.REALITY EXPERIENCED THROUGH the SENSES
6.WITHOUT GRATUITOUS SEX or VIOLENCE or the GLORIFICATION OF
8.HUMANITY PORTRAYED IN ALL ITS COMPLEXITY
9.WOMEN PORTRAYED AS WHOLE COMPLEX INDIVIDUALS
10.SURPRISE, something I don't already know
11.WRITER CREDIBILITY - convincing research, telling detail
14.Reading is FUN, ENTERTAINMENT, so HUMOUR is appreciated; and part of fun for me is LEARNING and THINKING
15.I like to LEARN (facts) or be inspired to find out the facts
16.I like to THINK or be inspired to think (opinions, of the characters and the writers, making me think about my own opinions)
17.IMPORTANT THEMES - THE HUMAN CONDITION
18.CHARACTERS TO LOVE
Ever since as a teenager I read Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel (which is set 50 miles from my home town in Manitoba and is also set in BC, my second home), I've sought the rush of reading stories SET IN LANDSCAPES WHICH ARE IMPORTANT TO ME. Usually this means the setting is some place familiar to me, where I have lived or visited, or perhaps where I hope to visit. Place has always been important to me, and my attachment to place, to the square feet of Earth I stand upon, is just part of who I am. I don't think this is something I control or choose, this passionate association to place. In Chinese astrology, where the day, month, and year you are born can be represented by symbols and these symbols are considered to be component parts of your personality, I am EARTH/EARTH/EARTH. I try not to admit this to too many people as I suspect that this triple Earth aspect, although it accounts for my profound connection to Earth and Landscape and Place, also suggests a sort of unbalance. But what can you do? As Shakespeare says, There is a Divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will. Perhaps this love of Earth is also linked to the luck I had being raised on a farm where the pastures and fields and country roads were accessible daily, were extensions of the house, part of home.
So, for me, setting is always important. And ever since I took my first real Canadian Literature course from Dorothy Livesay back there shortly after the Centennial, I've tried to focus on reading as many stories SET IN CANADA as I possibly can, which most often means CANADIAN WRITERS, of course. This is mostly a question of time. There are too many billions of people and too many millions of writers to be able to read without some sort of focus; I choose to focus here.
This attachment to place has another aspect. It has something to do with reality. I'm not very interested in philosophy or abstractions. Things. REAL THINGS THAT I CAN EXPERIENCE WITH MY SENSES. And people who live in a real world. So science fiction is not a favourite either. I prefer real characters in real places experiencing real things. I don't need the trope. I never really know what that word means. I mean something like a device, a trick, a conceit.
What else do I look for when I read? I don't like poor or bad writing. So WRITING STYLE is important to me. I expect the writing to be art. I don't like GRATUITOUS SEX that is not an important part of character and/or plot development. I don't like stories that seem REDUCTIVE to me, stories that make characters, especially female characters, seem stupid. For example, how many stories focus on Henry VIII as if having six wives were about his sex drive. He was the king; he could and did have sex with anyone and everyone he wanted. It wasn't about the sex! Or stories that expand upon the "happily ever after" fairy tales of women hunting and catching a man. I avoided Jane Austen when I was younger because I hated the suggestion that everything in life centres around mating. I was way older than one would expect before I recognized that Jane Austen abhorred this also and wrote about the subservient role of women economically, legally, socially, as a way of opening people's eyes to the injustice and the waste of intelligence, of human potential, which could be contributing to the larger society beyond the home. So I'm looking for HUMANITY PORTRAYED IN ALL ITS COMPLEXITY (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual) and WOMEN PORTRAYED AS WHOLE COMPLEX INDIVIDUALS, not simply as sex objects and/or baby machines and/or caretakers.
Sometimes I avoid historical fiction. Partly this is because we know what happened in history. (I never watched JC's Titanic movie for the same reason.) If there is no SURPRISE in the plot, I wonder whether I'm wasting time listening to a story I've already heard. There is also the question of WRITER CREDIBILITY. Who is this writer and why should I accept his or her version of history as credible? Did he or she just make this up for literary purposes? And yet I have enjoyed Gone With the Wind and A Farewell To Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, and A Star Called Henry which involve engaging characters caught up in tumultuous times--the American Civil War, World War I, and the Irish independence movement. I'm trying to think of Canadian examples: Sinclair Ross' As For Me And My House captures the Great Depression, Terrence Heath's novel about the march on Ottawa and the Spanish Civil War was good, but I don't remember the characters. Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road takes us right into the trenches and back to the bush. The English Patient is one of the best, a complex novel within an historical setting, including Canadian troops in World War II in Africa and Italy. The first time I saw it I wished that my father were still alive to see it too. How he used to hate the war propaganda films about how the Americans won the war and saved the world. Anil's Ghost, although the historic settings-genocide around the world-are not as well known, is my favourite Ondaatje novel, I think because I prefer its writing style. The poetry does not get between the reader and the story. So I think this is what I expect in all books I want to read--that they are more like a movie, not a snapshot. That the narrative incorporates MOVEMENT, that characters and plot include GROWTH/CHANGE/TRANSFORMATION as part of the storyline, most likely in some way REDEMPTIVE for both the character or characters and for me, the reader. That they depict ordinary but interesting characters with whom I can IDENTIFY set in trying times. Think Virginia Woolf.
Now that I am no longer a student, I enjoy the luxury of reading almost solely for FUN, for ENTERTAINMENT. Even when I pick books for review, I choose only topics or writers which appeal to me. Partly because I HATE WHINING and I truly believe being NEGATIVE is a WASTE of ENERGY which really says: I DID NOT TRY HARD ENOUGH TO FIGURE OUT THE STRENGTHS OF THIS WORK. Reading should be FUN and part of that fun can be the fun of figuring out the PUZZLE of What really is the writer's point here? But what else is fun for me? Mostly I like stories which make me THINK and which give me things to think about. So I want to gain some sort of ENLIGHTENMENT. And I want to think about the HUMAN CONDITION, the Big Issues. I guess this would mean that I'm looking for THEMES and that I am not so interested in the latest food or fashion trends, the latest addiction recovery method, the current chicklit or spyguy genres. Although I am a crime fiction fan and read everything I can get by Gail Bowen (Saskatchewan) and Ian Rankin (Edinburgh). Actually, I am in love with Rankin's John Rebus character and I've been depressed ever since he retired. So what makes Rankin's writing more than "genre fiction"?
Aside from the city of Edinburgh and environs, which I've visited and which I love, Rebus is a round character, with strengths and flaws, who fails to win his struggle to balance work and private life. He has an interesting and recognizable cast of co-workers, lovers, and family members. And over the years he develops. Not just ages, but develops. Along with his country. The opening of the Scottish Parliament (Set In Darkness) and the G8 meeting (The Naming of the Dead) are the backdrops for novels. Historic (the bodysnatchers in Resurrection Men) and cultural (the sacred wells) references pepper the stories, contributing to plot more than simply as local colour. So it seems that I am looking for the MICRO/MACROCOSM, the big events in history and society parallelling big events in the lives of the characters. No one is going to call Ian Rankin's novels HISTORICAL FICTION, yet history is incorporated into the narrative in ways that inform both plot and character and in ways which suggest themes such as personal identity and its relationship to national identity and globalization, etc.
I'm not that big on literature as escapism, or vicarious adventure, vicarious romance, vicarious sex. And, although I do enjoy learning about how other people live, I'm not too keen on glimpses into the misery of others. I suppose Angela's Ashes would be an exception, but that's because I've visited Ireland and love that place too. Or perhaps it is McCourt's sense of humour. I should add that to the list also. As I said, I seldom read science fiction, although I enjoyed Oryx and Crake. If you want to comment on today's society, just say it; you don't have to create an alternate universe for me just to question the way things are done today.
It all seems pretty basic and simple to me. I guess that's the proof. To paraphrase what Cohen says in Beautiful Losers, my interest in these things betrays my simple personality.
Why do you read?
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