It’s a pleasure: reading for various reasons

Anne Perry was fascinating at the British Fantasy Society event last night, and is totally not responsible for this riff on one thing she said.

She mentioned reading for pleasure (not a thing editors get to do, much).
When she said it, the phrase sounded suddenly odd. I thought of Reading for the Plot, by Peter Brooks:

“Reading for the plot,” we learned somewhere in the course of our schooling, is a low form of activity … plot is that which especially characterizes popular mass-consumption literature: plot is why we read Jaws, but not Henry James.

(No need to get pre-emptively peeved – Brooks argues against idea this in the rest of the book.)

‘Reading for the plot’ here suggests looking out for the plot on purpose, preferring it to other things (the quality of the writing, the characterisation). Like reading a classic novel for the sex scenes. Last night, I heard ‘reading for pleasure’ in the same way – not just ‘reading what I choose, in my free time, for no other aim’ but ‘reading to prioritise pleasure, to wring the pleasure out of books’.

Pleasure isn’t cheap or simple (which is also what Brooks argues about plot). There’s pleasure in achieving something difficult, pleasure in being unsettled, pleasure in crying. Pleasure – of all kinds – pulls the reader through a work.

But much of the reading I’m connected with doesn’t have reading pleasure as its main motivation. I read to teach – twenty-five novels a year or so – and I’m helping on a reviewing project where I’ve already bolted eight. I read to get up to speed on a topic, or to help someone out.

I used to ask my students, as an icebreaker, what books they’d read recently for pleasure – I stopped doing this, because they often replied they hadn’t had a chance to read for pleasure in months. This is really sad. But it’s also a teaching challenge, because it distorts a reader’s relationship with texts. When I discuss books, I want to talk about motivation: What pleasurable expectations make a reader choose a particular book? What pleasures make them turn the first page? Why do they read the second chapter? The answer, for the student, is ‘because I have to.’

I also suspect that losing touch with reading-for-pleasure can spoil student-writers, or academic-writers. I’m writing while thinking (at some level): ‘Well, I had to slog through Moby Dick, so why can’t I inflict something similar on other people?’ I forget that the majority of fiction-reading in the world is done for no immediate gain other than the joy of it.

In my non-work reading, I’ll soon get my Hugo Award pack (hurrah) and read (some of) those for pleasure, but also to evaluate them. And I want to catch up on classics, and try to broaden my reading range, and I’ve got a book by a mate I should finish. I expect to enjoy all that, but there are multiple motivations behind my choices. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s reading which is purely pleasurable, and other sorts which are sullied (by work, or criticism, or politics).

Not least, the pleasures of unpleasurable reading keep unfolding, for me. There’s a pleasure in reading on past the point where I’d stop reading for pleasure, in ghastly scenes and waiting for the other cliché to drop. There’s a pleasure in finishing something I dislike (or setting it aside halfway through). Feeling smug about speed and quantity. One of my favourite activities is disliking a book so much that I have to read other people’s opinions on it until I can find something I admire about it (that’s you, The Road). There’s a pleasure, sometimes, in being confronted with the unfamiliar or jarring and making an accommodation with it.



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