A few weeks ago a fellow PhD student in the English department asked me what I read when I’m not reading for my doctoral research. I answered that I read mostly non-fiction and that, come to think about it, I couldn’t remember the last fiction book I had finished (a later peek at my ‘Books Read’ list revealed it to be The Hobbit). My colleague looked at me confused, noting that he often found himself lost in fiction that drew him away from the books that he knew he needed to read for his own doctoral research. ‘Why don’t you read fiction?’, he asked. Without thinking before I spoke, I blurted out my truth: ‘Because it doesn’t feel productive.’
Now, I know this isn’t objectively true. Research suggests that reading literary fiction (the heavier stuff, like DeLillo and Chekov) in particular helps people develop empathy and emotional intelligence. Indeed, research shows that regular fiction readers demonstrate greater ‘social abilities’ than regular non-fiction readers. Reading fiction for pleasure has also been credited with reducing symptoms of depression, and bibliotherapy is accepted by many playing a legitimate role in maintaining wellbeing (click here to read my introduction to bibliotherapy). So reading fiction gets you places. It can be productive, albeit rather than collecting facts and data you are developing theory of mind and the ability to open yourself up to others’ experiences and opinions. My degrees in book history and my current position in an English department have all ingrained me with an understanding of fiction as good for you. Good for your soul.
Following this conversation with my colleague, I reasoned with myself. You know what? I just prefer non-fiction to fiction. I don’t need to justify why. I just do. But my colleague’s confused sentiment played in my mind. As the weeks went by, I spoke more and more with other people about what they read outside of their working lives, and why they thought they read. If I read to feel productive, even in circumstances where nobody is holding me accountable for any kind of productivity, what were other people doing?
The more people I spoke to, the more I heard about the idea of reading as a pleasurable escape. Arguments for books as means for escaping into other worlds, as adventures contained in text, were permeated with metaphors of vision – I see myself there, one person told me. When I read The Wizard of Oz as a child, I was in the story. I could see Dorothy and the Lion and the Tin Man. I could feel the hurricane, another person explained.
As I continued to have these conversations, I increasingly felt like maybe there was something wrong with me, that maybe I was never taught how to read correctly. I read for pleasure, sure, but I don’t gain pleasure from the texts themselves so much I gain pleasure from feeling as though I’m better equipped to contribute to conversations about the texts in question. I can’t remember ever feeling lost in a fictional world, or seeing that which the author described.
Apparently I’m not the only one who doesn’t craft mental images while reading. Further, one of the oldest published statistical studies (from 1880) indicates that people have varying abilities to create mental images to recall even familiar scenes. Okay, so maybe this explains why reading fiction, for me, is never escapist. Reading fiction is always hard work, not because I find the repetitive eye movements difficult, but because at times I find myself altogether unable to place myself within those situations that others find so immersive.
This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the occasional fiction book. I did like The Hobbit, which I recently read for the first time. Plus, as a child, I devoured fiction. I savoured the hours spent flipping through novel after novel, despite the backaches I got from poor reading posture. During the last few weeks, though, I have been trying to remember precisely why I liked reading fiction so much as a child. One Eve Fairbanks recalls her childhood ‘best friends’ as being books because in books she found connections with text’s authors and fictional characters alike, her young imagination stimulated – as she writes nostalgically – because ‘a book’s limitless patience sets a child free to discover his own interior rhythms, what attracts and bores him and what he really loves, liberated from the pressure to create a persona that he believes will be lovable.’
Books were absolutely not my childhood best friends. I liked books, and lived for my family’s monthly trips to the local bookstore (where I would later end up working for three years). But my ‘interior rhythms’ were not satisfied by any of my books’ ‘limitless patience’. Rather than get lost in stories, I got lost in words. The melodic flows of language arranged in ways that made the little blonde hair on my arms and fingertips stand on edge. I think back to the fiction I read as a child and as a teenager and I realize that I have no mental images of those worlds I supposedly visited. I do, however, occasionally hear clips of myself reading particular passages that replay in my mind without warning. As only yesterday I attempted to read my latest foray into fiction – Gulliver’s Travels – I realized immediately after putting the book down that I could hardly recall the story I had just read. Instead, all I could think about was how beautifully the sentences had been put together. For me, the aural aspect of reading fiction predominates, not the visual. Come to think about it, aurality/orality also overshadows visuality in other aspects of my life: I remember names more easily than I remember faces; I remember conversations better than that which I’ve read.
As a child, I also liked the social rewards of reading. If you’re a kid who reads a lot, you get smothered with praise. People automatically assume you’re smart because you’re holding a book. They assume you’re worldly and worth talking to. And sure, a lot of bookish people are smart and worldly and worth talking to. But while others were visiting a new world every time they turned a page, I was sitting with my book to publicly declare my identity as smart and worth talking to. And every time I finished a book I would add that book to my ‘Books Read’ list, quantifying each of my textual conquests. The list is one of many ways I quantify my life: a practice that I’m never sure if I actually derive pleasure from, or if it is just something I do because I am an anxious person with somewhat obsessive tendencies.
Reading fiction for me does not represent escapist pleasure. It does not stir in me visual imagination, although I appreciate that other forms of imagination (trying to discern authorial intent, for example) are present in any reading process. Fiction in particular stumps me because I think I have always felt like I have been reading it incorrectly. As someone who processes written texts aurally rather than visually, I am much better suited to reading non-fiction works that spew dates and facts that I can drop casually into cocktail party chatter. I remember names more easily than I remember faces, and non-fiction does not beg of me to remember a face that I have never before seen.