Sunday Salon: Reading for Pleasure

Do you ever hear people say that the “literary” quality of a book doesn’t matter because they’re just reading for pleasure? I hear it now and then, and the remark vexes me because it implies that literary quality detracts from pleasure, when quality should increase pleasure. I imagine that what people mean is that “literary” equals challenging and that pleasurable reading should not be a challenge. But I disagree. Pleasure comes in many forms, and for me, one of those forms can include being challenged.

Some of my favorite writers—Thomas Hardy, Marilynne Robinson, José Saramago—are considered difficult. That feeling is sometimes expressed with a sniffy sort of reverse snobbery that suggests that those of us who claim to enjoy these writers are just trying to impress. But many readers take genuine pleasure in books that aren’t easy reads. I discovered Saramago, for example, entirely on my own, learning only after I read and loved The Double that he had received a Nobel Prize. When I picked that book up, I surely didn’t expect to impress anyone by reading it.

That said, I don’t think every book needs to be difficult to be enjoyable. Some of my other favorite writers—Stephen King, Ruth Rendell, Georgette Heyer—are sometimes dismissed as trashy genre writers whose works don’t challenge the reader or offer anything to chew on. Whether they offer anything to chew on is debatable. (In some cases, they absolutely do.) But who says every book needs to be a meaty challenge to be of value? Might some readers take pleasure in being entertained and not desire anything more? Plus, what’s challenging to one reader might be a breeze to someone else.

My reading tastes are eclectic enough that I enjoy books that challenge me and books that merely divert me. Which kind of book I gravitate to depends on my mood and mental state. Other readers might find that they consistently lean more toward one kind of book than another. Every now and then, I find a book that stimulates my mind and is superbly entertaining. Such books tend to be my favorites, but not every book needs to please me in every way to be worth my time.

Stef has written a couple of posts about this topic recently, which I encourage you to check out. But I think one of the best statements I’ve seen related to reading for pleasure comes from Umberto Eco, in the Postscript to The Name of the Rose:

The ideal reader of Finnegans Wake must, finally, enjoy himself as much as the ideal reader of Erle Stanley Gardner. Exactly as much, but in a different way.

What do you think of when you hear people say they read for pleasure or enjoyment? Do you tend to enjoy certain kinds of books more than others? How important is it to you to be challenged by what you read?

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25 Responses to Sunday Salon: Reading for Pleasure

  1. litlove says:

    I think that reading can be such a passionate sort of engagement with a book that it makes Reader A suspicious to hear that something they detested actually pleased Reader B. Then comes the backlash – has A been foolish? Or inattentive? Or is Reader B having a laugh at Reader A’s expense? With a bit of distance we all know that taste is a funny thing, and often more transient and incoherent than we expect it to be. And it’s quite possible not to ‘get’ a book the first time around, or to dislike something we thought we’d adore. But that initial contact with a story is so powerful and leaves such a trace that I think it can just be hard to overcome our initial impressions and imagine someone else feeling something different. This is always a good conversation to have, Teresa, as the ghettos in the literary world are the worst part of it!

    • Teresa says:

      Yes! As much as we know taste is subjective, we still want to be “right” about a book’s worthiness. I know I’ve had times when I fell utterly in love with a book that, on further examination, I could see had serious problems, yet I still want to defend the book for what it does offer. And I think it’s quite right to do that, and I’d hope that I could step back and see that books I loathe have value for someone–that’s easier in some cases than in others.

  2. I am with you on this, sometimes I get pleasure from being challenged by an author and sometimes I want an easier read. I think everyone should read whatever gives them pleasure and not judge anyone else for what gives them pleasure.

  3. Lisa says:

    I agree with you that with reading, “Pleasure comes in many forms, and for me, one of those forms can include being challenged.” For me, there first has to be the kind of engagement with the book that litlove mentions above. If I’m not engaged with the book, on some level (particularly with the characters, in fiction), then comes the real struggle to read and I’m not likely to finish it. When I feel interest, sympathy (or antipathy), curiosity, then I become invested in the book. The Umberto Eco quote reminded me of C.S. Lewis. He said that the true reader, who “will enjoy a kickshaw as a kickshaw and a tragedy as a tragedy,” also “reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can. But for that very reason he cannot possibly read every work solemnly or gravely” (An Experiment in Criticism).

  4. Deb says:

    I get into a different frame of mind depending on the genre I’m reading. If I’m reading a Regency romance, I’m not expecting to have to frequently flip back and forth to try to remember plot points or characters. If I”m reading a murder-mystery, I pay close attention and do a lot of going back to re-read to double-check clues and references. If I’m reading a big, meaty novel with lots of action and characters, I expect to have to read more slowly than usual (at least in the beginning) just to get the feel of the various characters and their environments. I think I start disengaging from a book when my expectations of HOW I’m going to read that book are upset. I suppose, as always, that says more about me than the particular book I’m reading.

    I’m not a big fan of Oprah Winfrey, but when she was doing her book club she had Toni Morrison on her show; and Oprah said to her, “Are you aware that sometimes readers have to go back and reread certain sections of your books to figure out your meaning?” To which Morrison replied, “That’s why it’s called reading, dear.”

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I read different kinds of book differently, and that’s a great point about expectations. If I pick up a book that I thought would be a breeze and end up having to work, I might blame the book, and if I’m in the mood for a challenge, I might be annoyed that a chosen book was too light.

  5. Karen K. says:

    I think I’m like you, I enjoy both kinds (though probably not anything as difficult as Saramago!) Right now I’m trying to finish up a 1980s novel called The Shooting Party, plus I’ve just started listening to Our Mutual Friend on audio in my car, and I’ve also read a bit of A Dance With Dragnons, the latest in the epic fantasy series by George R. R. Martin. I get impatient with stream of consciousness so I’ve barely read any Faulkner or Joyce. I think you can enjoy all kinds of literature. I do read certain books just to challenge myself, but if I hated it I wouldn’t read it just for the sake of finishing it.

    • Teresa says:

      Saramago is the author who won me over to stream of consciousness writing, because The Double was so funny in its use of it. I’m getting ready to give Faulkner another try, so we’ll see how that goes. I’m like you in that I will try books that I think might challenge me, but I’m gradually learning to let go and not finish if I’m not enjoying them on some level.

  6. I imagine that drawing the distinction between reading a “challenging” book and “reading for pleasure” reflects a certain insecurity about one’s reading habits (e.g., will they think I’m an idiot for reading a romance? I had better come up with an “excuse.”)

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re absolutely right, Jill. I think, too, that even people who are comfortable in general with their own reading habits might balk at mentioning certain books to others because they think they’ll be judged.

  7. Shoeless says:

    I stumbled here from the booksnob’s site…so glad I did! Love your writing style and had so much fun reading your old blog post…I’ve bookmarked your site and will definitely be back for more! You’ve earned yourself a new “regular.”

  8. pburt says:

    I think everyone brings their past, biases, likes, and dislikes to their reading which is one of the main reasons I like reading and discussing books – it is such a personal experience and it gives me a picture into the other person. If I think that The Help is in dire need of a good editor and badly written, does that negate the experience my friend had. She enjoyed to book because it brought back memories of her southern childhood with a black maid? I was raised by an eclectic reader and I am an eclectic reader. Sometimes I feel life calls for a different reading experience from escapism (for me its mysteries) to challenging, to needing to read about certain themes, to re-reading for a sense of familiarity.

    Good discussion.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m often much more interested in why people like or dislike the books they read than in whether they liked or disliked it. It reveals so much more about both the person and the book than just a statement of opinion–and it can help me see value in books I might otherwise dismiss (even if I decide that the particular book isn’t a good choice for me).

  9. Jeanne says:

    Since reading every book on the list for “comprehensive” exams for a PhD in literature, I read only for pleasure! But like all of the other commenters here, I get pleasure from different kinds of fiction. One of my favorite novels, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (which has a mystery/scifi flavor) took me 70 pages to get interested.

  10. Stefanie says:

    You know I agree with you :) Auden said that we should not read a mastepiece everyday, that reading masterpieces was so exhausting (in a good way) that they should be reserved as special occasions. He was talking about poetry but it could just as well be fiction too. I find great pleasure in being challenged by a book but I would go insane if every book I read was challenge after challenge. Variety is the spice of life and reading :)

    • Teresa says:

      Auden had it right. I sometimes *need* something fun and easy after reading something challenging, and both types of books are equal pleasures in their way.

  11. Like you, a read a variety of types of books. I like to balance light and heavy reading, but not because one is more pleasurable than the other. They are both pleasurable, just in different ways. A nice frothy book or cozy mystery is a great stress reliever after a crazy day at work or after reading a heavier classic or literary fiction work. But I couldn’t just stick with light reads – I need the stimulation of books that make you think and teach you something, and I truly do enjoy those. It does bug me when people think I’m weird or lying when I say I actually like reading classics, but I do! There are occasions where I continue to read a book that I’m not enjoying, but that’s rare and it’s usually because I want to give it a chance. Sometimes it’s because I want to have finished it (i.e. Moby Dick), but I don’t do that to brag that I’ve read it but because of my own personal goals and sometimes wanting to push myself to read something outside of my norm.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve gotten the same disbelief from people when I mention enjoying a classic. It makes me wish they’d had better experiences with them in school because maybe they’d see the pleasure in so many of them.

      I can see the value in pushing through to finish for your own personal sense of accomplishment. I don’t do that much anymore either, but I have. Recently, I read a long volume of Keirkegaard in its entirety for much the same reason, and there were sections that I didn’t enjoy or understand at all.

  12. Nicola says:

    Oh an interesting subject and close to my heart. I like to balance light and heavy as other commenters have said. I think too much academia can destroy your pleasure in books, though. Wuthering Heights was my favourite novel before I took my English degree. By the time, we’d analysed it from a Freudian/Marxist/Feminist perspective I just wanted to throw the bloody book in the bin!

    • Teresa says:

      I think I was really lucky in my literary education because most of my teachers and professors didn’t “do” the books to death. I had maybe one class where I felt things went overboard consistently. Most of the time, I was able to enjoy the new perspectives, and we were on to something else before I was sick of it.

  13. boardinginmyforties says:

    I read to suit my moods. A challenging book can be so satisfying when I feel calm and have quiet and can focus. Sometimes something that I find easier to read will suit me better after a long day at the office when my brain “hurts” and can’t focus as closely on what I am reading. If I listen closely to my “inner reader” I almost always find the right book at the right time.

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