Why We Read


I was pointed toward an interesting, if bloated, article by Jonathan Franzen from 1996, “Perchance to Dream”. Here’s an excerpt about why people read, according to a sociologist (with sentences boldfaced by me):

Shirley Brice Heath is a former MacArthur Fellow, a linguistic anthropologist, and a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford; she’s a stylish, twiggy, white-haired lady with no discernible tolerance for small talk. Throughout the Eighties, Heath haunted what she calls “enforced transition zones”–places where people are held captive without recourse to television or other comforting pursuits. She rode public transportation in twenty-seven different cities. She lurked in airports…. She took her notebook into bookstores and seaside resorts. Whenever she saw people reading or buying “substantive works of fiction” (meaning, roughly, trade-paperback fiction), she asked for a few minutes of their time. She visited summer writers conferences and creative-writing programs to grill ephebes. She interviewed novelists. Three years ago she interviewed me, and last summer I had lunch with her in Palo Alto.

[But she doesn’t seem to have published anything about any of this. -me]

To the extent that novelists think about audience at all, we like to imagine a “general audience”–a large, eclectic pool of decently educated people who can be induced, by strong enough reviews or aggressive enough marketing, to treat themselves to a good, serious book. …

Heath’s … research effectively demolishes the myth of the general audience. For a person to sustain an interest in literature, she told me, two things have to be in place. First, … one or both of the parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same. On the East Coast, Heath found a strong element of class in this. Parents in the privileged classes encourage reading out of a sense of what Louis Auchincloss calls “entitlement”: just as the civilized person ought to be able to appreciate caviar and a good Burgundy, she ought to be able to enjoy Henry James. Class matters less in other parts of the country, especially in the Protestant Midwest, where literature is seen as a way to exercise the mind. …

According to Heath, young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest. …

I told her I didn’t remember either of my parents ever reading a book when I was a child, except aloud to me.

Without missing a beat Heath replied: “Yes, but there’s a second kind of reader. There’s the social isolate–the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. … What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you–because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read.“

For Heath, a defining feature of “substantive works of fiction” is unpredictability. She arrived at this definition after discovering that most of the hundreds of serious readers she interviewed have had to deal, one way or another, with personal unpredictability. Therapists and ministers who counsel troubled people tend to read the hard stuff. So do people whose lives have not followed the course they were expected to: merchant-caste Koreans who don’t become merchants, ghetto kids who go to college, men from conservative families who lead openly gay lives, and women whose lives have turned out to be radically different from their mothers’. This last group is particularly large. There are, today, millions of American women whose lives do not resemble the lives they might have projected from their mothers’, and all of them, in Heath’s model, are potentially susceptible to substantive fiction.[6]

In her interviews, Heath uncovered a “wide unanimity” among serious readers that literature “‘makes me a better person.’”She hastened to assure me that, rather than straightening them out in a self-help way, “reading serious literature impinges on the embedded circumstances in people’s lives in such a way that they have to deal with them. And, in so dealing, they come to see themselves as deeper and more capable of handling their inability to have a totally predictable life.” Again and again, readers told Heath the same thing: “Reading enables me to maintain a sense of something substantive–my ethical integrity, my intellectual integrity. ‘Substance’ is more than ‘this weighty book.’ Reading that book gives me substance.”  …

With near unanimity, Heath’s respondents described substantive works of fiction as “the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical, and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically. From Agamemnon forward, for example, we’ve been having to deal with the conflict between loyalty to one’s family and loyalty to the state. And strong works of fiction are what refuse to give easy answers to the conflict, to paint things as black and white, good guys versus bad guys. They’re everything that pop psychology is not.”

“And religions themselves are substantive works of fiction,” I said.

She nodded. “This is precisely what readers are saying: that reading good fiction is like reading a particularly rich section of a religious text. What religion and good fiction have in common is that the answers aren’t there, there isn’t closure. The language of literary works gives forth something different with each reading. But unpredictability doesn’t mean total relativism. Instead it highlights the persistence with which writers keep coming back to fundamental problems. Your family versus your country, your wife versus your girlfriend.”

The first section seems implausible or just trite. It sounds like all she’s saying is that some people read for social reasons, and some for non-social reasons, pretty much like every other activity. This is a theory that doesn’t predict anything. Also, telling someone that “from an early age you felt different from everyone around you” is a cold-reading trick.

The second section is more interesting. Perhaps it’s also trivially true. She may have defined “substantive works of fiction” in a way that excluded readers unlike the group that she “discovered”. But it does describe what I like in fiction.

I agree that fiction is the only place where most people grapple with difficult problems in nontrivial ways, and might possibly change their minds. There are plenty of forums for debate; but I seldom see debate change anybody’s mind. I have better ways of arriving at truth than through fiction, but not of communicating it. Fiction manipulates your emotions to make you perceive facts differently, using stories as Trojan horses to smuggle in ideas and attitudes that your mental firewalls ordinarily keep out.

But its methodology is so sloppy that it’s hard to believe it can on average bring you closer to truth, rather than farther from it. Good writers aren’t especially good philosophers, so most of their ideas may be bad. If fiction does more good than harm, it’s probably just by shaking readers out of their local minima in thoughtspace. A random walk through mostly-bad ideas may eventually arrive in a place that’s clearly better.

Summary: Substantive works of fiction are “the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical, and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically”.


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