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Why Do You Read What You Read?

In her introduction to The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing discusses how she used to get a lot of mail from college students asking her for a list of “authorities” and critics who have commented on her work. This, of course, was long before the internet.

That prompts her to write several pointed paragraphs about what she calls the “literary machine.” It’s pretty awesome to read, especially if you tire of the pretentiousness of many literary critics. Here’s part of what she said:

Why are they so parochial, so personal, so small-minded? Why do they always atomize, and belittle, why are they so fascinated by detail, and uninterested in the whole? Why is their interpretation of the word critic always to find fault? Why are they alway seeing writers as in conflict with each other, rather than complementing each other…simple, that is how they are trained to think. That valuable person who understands what you are doing, what you are aiming for, and can give you advice and real criticism, is nearly always someone right outside the literary machine, even outside the university system; it may be a student just beginning, and still in love with literature, or perhaps it may be a thoughtful person who reads a great deal, following his own instinct.

Lessing goes on to describe what she views as a better way to select books–as opposed to being force fed by the “experts.”

There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag–and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or movement. Remember that book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty–and vice versa….Above all, you should know that the fact that you have to spend one year, or two years, on one book, or one author means that you are badly taught–you should have been taught to read your way from one sympathy to another, you should be learning to follow your own intuitive feeling about what you need: that is what you should have been developing, not the way to quote from other people.

I love the spirit of what Doris Lessing says there. And I agree with it, mostly.

Obviously, I don’t mind being “told” what to read, to some degree, since I’m reading from a list of books selected by two book critics from Time Magazine. But this experience is slowly making me agree more and more with Lessing’s viewpoint.

It’s okay to read a book because someone tells you it’s good. But if you get 50 pages in and hate it, there’s no reason to continue on. Even if, God forbid, you disagree with a famous book critic! Unless, you’re stupid like me, of course, and decided to read EVERYTHING off a certain list.

On the flip side, I think it’s important that 18 year olds in college know what’s out there, what’s considered to be “good” literature. We need a reference point. But from there, we’ve got to form our own opinion without being swayed by the prevailing thoughts.

Yeah, that’s tricky in college. Because you’ve got to finish the books your professor makes you read, at least if you want a decent grade. That makes me wonder–why don’t literature professors allow for more freedom in what their students read? Let them choose.

I’m rambling now.

What do you think about Lessing’s opinion on book critics, the “literary machine,” and how you choose what to read?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fantastic thought from Ms. Lessing. What I took from her words is a commandment to “think for yourself”. My life is better when I form my own opinion or learn something by doing/thinking it through.

    As it relates to books, I have long held that all books deserve your attention for 50 pages. After that I am free to “put aside”. Tropic of Cancer (at page 38) changed that paradigm for me. Lolita crushed it (page 12). Control your time, it’s valuable.

    I like Ms. Lessing. Great post.

    Like

    March 5, 2013
    • You should try Naked Lunch. I’ve heard it’s pretty awful too. Might give Lolita a run.

      Like

      March 5, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on Ajoobacats Blog and commented:
    I determine my reading list

    Like

    March 5, 2013
  3. I agree that we should read what we want to. There are a ton of books and other media that I love and the critics hate and also stuff Ihate that the critics love.

    It’s down to us to decide what we like. A little guidance every so often is appreciated but we all have our individual

    Like

    March 5, 2013
  4. I’ve gotten stuck reading through lists, too. And I have a hard time putting down a book once I start it. I feel there must be some value it in, if others have liked it, and it’s gained a certain “reputation.” Sometimes it’s worth finishing, sometimes not. Sometimes I’ll continue a book because of its entertainment value, sometimes because it provides a penetrating comment on an age or a period of history. All kinds of different reasons. While it’s good, and perhaps more rewarding, to choose for oneself, that doesn’t expose one to alternate and/or challenging ideas. It’s also valuable to understand that those who have studied a certain period of our history may have a better grasp of which novels may provide the best commentary on that period, and their opinion is worth considering, even if we don’t particularly care for the works they recommend.One of the reasons we read, after all, is to broaden our minds, and they can’t be broadened if we stick only to what we already enjoy.

    Like

    March 5, 2013
    • Fair point. I think that’s why I keep reading books even when I’m not crazy about them. I know a lot of people DID like them, and I try and figure out what the appeal is. At the same time, though, you can’t let your opinion be influenced.

      Like

      March 5, 2013
  5. I am definitely the kind of person who “judges a book by it’s cover” so to speak. I peruse the shelves and when a cover grabs me, that is what I read. It’s proven to be a pretty good system. Occasionally I will read something that gets a lot of attention in the media (“The Help”, “The Time Traveler’s Wife”), but mostly I go against the grain of what’s on the best seller list. Although I have been known to pick up a book on a whim and later find out that is on the NYT best seller list.

    I also can never finish a book I don’t like, which didn’t serve me very well as a Creative Writing major with a lot of lit classes. However, I learned very quickly that if you stroked your professors ego and took really good notes during lectures an A was still possible. 😉

    Like

    March 5, 2013
    • Oh yes. I was the king of skimming a book just to get the main points and then doing fairly good on the tests.

      Like

      March 5, 2013
  6. BRAVO, Doris!!! (Good on you, too, Robert for posting this–but then, it appeals to some of my own biases. 😉 I’ll be mentioning this in tomorrow’s Great Stuff for Writers.) Seriously, it’s disappointing that the way literature is taught in schools and colleges can so often suck the pleasure out of reading. And then some writers criticize people for reading for pleasure/entertainment! Wow.

    It’s up to those of us who write stories that we intend to entertain (and, oh by the way, maybe also challenge our readers to think in new ways or gain new perspectives–or maybe not) to stand up to those who find what we do sinful. (Or maybe that’s tilting at a windmill that would be better left ignored.)

    Like

    March 5, 2013
  7. I do think that the vast majority of undergrads need help when selecting books to read. Some guidance, someone who’s been there and has some world experience. When you’re a “professional student” of literature, I think you’ve got to “follow the program” to a certain extent unless you’re designing your own reading program. A good professor will open your eyes, help you appreciate why you’re reading something, even if you don’t find it spellbinding. When reading for yourself and not for a class, then I’m with Lessing 100%, allowing your friends and acquaintances to influence your reading path. But at the university, especially survey and author courses, students need to “be on the same page” for classroom discussion. (Sorry, couldn’t refrain from the punning opportunity.)

    Francine Prose says that she lost her interest in reading by the time she got to graduate school. Apparently, she tired of how people stopped discussing the craft of the book versus “the message” or the author’s life and how it was reflected in the book. It seemed to her that some of these people didn’t even like to read unless they were reading something that supported their world view. That’s why she became a writer–to get away from the message people. :o) Anyway, I still haven’t had my coffee yet this morning, so my head isn’t too clear. I hope this makes sense.

    Like

    March 5, 2013
  8. that is how they are trained to think– Thank you for this reminder of the influence of educators. I like to believe and say it often that the goal of education is to teach students how to learn. Once they have that skill, they need formal education only where they feel they need it (the economic value of a diploma aside). Analogous to choosing books to read, we are hopefully exposed to a glimpse into the treasure chest/library to connect us to the possibility of seeing value in delving further on our own.

    Like

    March 5, 2013
  9. When I was in high school I didn´t like Borges, which was a lit class reading; now, at 30, I think its amazing. In college, I liked so much the Unbearable Lightness of the Being, and years later, going through some of the pages, I didn´t find it so great.

    Maybe one day I will like Chejov, but, for the moment, I put it aside.

    Like

    March 5, 2013
  10. Great post!
    I agree very much with Ms. Lessing – read what you choose for yourself! My experience is that if you have the chance to begin with an innocent uncomplicated love of reading it will naturally progress to you seeking out the more and more challenging literature.

    I began with Asterix comics and ended up with a masters degree in literature.
    My best friend began with Barbara Cartland novels and ended up a lover of short stories which she now shares with her young students.

    Like

    March 5, 2013
  11. Simple. I don’t read critics. Problem solved. 🙂 However, I do rely on others’ opinions for book recommendations, but it has to be someone (be it friend or blogger) whose reading taste I respect. I do think that students should be guided in their literary taste, especially for those that aren’t literary minded. I do think it would be neat if professors and teachers allowed students a choice in picking books to study–perhaps a half and half policy, where half of the books are in the syllabus and the rest chosen by the students. But then again, this could be a dangerous policy . . . imagine if the Twilight series or 50 Shades made it into the classroom. Blecck!

    Like

    March 5, 2013
  12. My reading list is pretty much preordained (I’m attempting to read four 100 lists, including Time Magazine’s). However, I sometimes get away from these lists to read friends’ and favorite reviewers’ recommendations, and to follow my gut feeling (and through these I discovered some of my favorite books).

    Like

    March 5, 2013
  13. rachel4848 #

    Great post. I’ve always tended to do my own thing and not follow the crowd 🙂

    Like

    March 6, 2013
  14. Follow one’s instinct all the way. By all means we read around reviews, we talk with people, but it’s part of our own reading journey to discover what really makes us as individuals respond and that is the beauty of being ourself, because we have particular stories and writers that will evoke certain responses and this can never be prescribed by anyone else.

    As an exercise, it is interesting to read what others suggest, whether academic or friends who read other genres, if only to further learn our own preferences. I like what she says, Doris Lessing’s words make a lot of sense to me.

    Like

    March 6, 2013
  15. chuckandstash #

    Reblogged this on this is my voice .

    Like

    March 7, 2013
  16. Reblogged this on anonymus120986.

    Like

    March 10, 2013
  17. now, what is written is absolutely correct, becoz i experience it all the time and not in case of books but from movies to restaurant, many times i follow other peoples choice end up with a headache

    Like

    March 12, 2013
  18. Denise #

    I think Doris Lessing is right on and I loved reading that statement because that’s what I do. I get my literary inspiration from browsing or following bibliography or from blogs. Sometimes it’s even so superficial as the pretty typeface, the smell of the pages or the heft of the spine. I find I rarely agree with literary critics, or with Oprah’s book club, although I’ve tried to follow along for awhile to see if I was missing out. I wasn’t. Not because the books were bad, but because they weren’t my choice and their timing in my literary life was not my own. I think it’s important to come around to ideas in your own time, and that’s exactly what I think Lessing was getting at in her statement.

    I do, however, believe that books deserve more than a first-chapter glance. Often times, some of the best literature is how the story winds through different emotions, how it ends, and how it lingers in your mind after it ends, not in how it presents itself initially.

    Thanks for this post, this is my first visit to your blog, and I might stick around awhile.

    Like

    March 12, 2013
    • I totally agree. There’s something to be said for reading a book at the precise time you need it in life. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll keep coming back!

      Like

      March 12, 2013
  19. Great post. Definitely agree that it’s important to follow what you like. With movies and books alike, I often ignore critics because my option and theirs never seem to match up. I also agree that it’s good to have guidance and exposure to different kinda of literature throughout school so that you can form your own opinions and continue to explore what you personally enjoy.

    Like

    April 7, 2013
  20. Reblogged this on Antevasin and commented:
    Do you ever feel like you’re reading the “wrong” books or seeing the “wrong” movies? Critics and “experts” can often make you feel that you’re not reading worthwhile literature, calling it self-indulgent or mindless fluff. In my opinion, you should skip what these people have to say and form your own thoughts/likes/dislikes on a book.
    I believe that it’s important to be exposed to different forms of literature in school, even though I haaaated reading Great Expectations in high school. In University though, I found that I had a passion for geography and really enjoyed reading my textbooks and writing papers on human and economic geography (including a ten page paper on the different rice strains grown around the world — never something I thought I would find interesting or fascinating). Because I was introduced to these different topics and books, I have been able to surprise myself, know myself a little better and really figure out what I enjoy reading.
    Typically I read memoirs and other forms of non-fiction because I love being able to relate to or read about other people’s lives and stories; however, it’s important to switch it up now and then, so I’ll throw in some fiction every once in a while. You’ll never know what’s going to grip and surprise you if you don’t step out of your box now and then. If you are interested in a topic or a book that you normally wouldn’t read, go ahead and read it! It’s not a life-long commitment to a certain subject, it’s only a book. And if you end up hating it, well, now you know. You can always stop reading and wash your hands of it.
    Point is, don’t not read a book just because it didn’t get a great review or someone else doesn’t like it. Take time to form your own opinions and find what really makes you happy.

    Like

    April 7, 2013

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