On books and readers

I was having a heated conversation yesterday about where a novel comes from and how true imagination shapes and distinguishes it from -for lack of a better phrase- a simple story, which I guess anyone, or almost anyone, can tell. What constitutes a good novel, and how do we define a good story? Is it all subjective? How is it possible that a book that has been praised, given awards, and generally been celebrated by so many people, even experts of the field, be condemned by one, two or even a hundred people? Do we accept this opinion? Is it simply taste and personal belief, or is it ignorance? The inability, due to lack of experience, to truly understand what a good book is. Do we need to look at a book in a purely techincal way in order to be able to ‘correctly’ evaluate it? Then where does the freedom of imagination and the art that presupposes, in a way, this very freedom come in? Does it mean that this contrasting opinion is automatically rejected, or not as worthy? And is a ‘humble’ reader then placed beneath the critic?

I realize that these are very difficult questions. Questions that critics of literature have been struggling with for years. Can there really be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to such questions? I don’t think it can. I believe that they, in a way, go hand in hand with philosophical questions such as ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.’ But in this case it does not have to do with the triviality or practicality of the question, but the mere acceptance that it may be too relative to even attempt to resolve it. There are many paths to take when discussing such an issue, and for the sake of simplicity, I will choose not to go down the analysis path that I’ve been dwelling in for the past three years due to my thesis. I will attempt, as much as I can, to look at this from a reader’s point of view.

I believe we can agree on a premise that an experienced reader is one that enjoys reading, that has read several book in a course of several years, and has acquired a certain critical thinking when looking at a book after having read it. They can talk about what it meant to them, what they took from it, if they enjoyed it, what feelings it evoked, if they would recommend it and for what reasons, and possibly compare it to another book/author/story, etc. On the other hand, an inexperienced reader is one that is not particularly interested in reading, has done so very few times, and does not see the need or purpose to evaluate or even talk about a book. However, it could also be that an inexperienced reader has simply not read that many books, and so he (or she) is not able to compare his findings with other sources.

One of the questions that was raised in last night’s conversation was whether these two readers’ opinion on any book has the same weight, importance, or value. Well… does it? Who’s to say? I would personally like and enjoy hearing anyone’s opinion on a book (that I have preferably also read myself, so that I can look at my own input in comparison). I might not agree with that opinion, I may even be strongly opposed to it, but I would still be very interested in hearing it. The following question was whether my experience (in both reading for pleasure and for critical analysis) would allow me to ‘discover’ or ‘uncover’ more elements of the book and thus put me on a different level from the recreational reader. To that I will answer yes, obviously. But that does not presuppose the other reader’s inability to relate his experience of the book and his ideas on it in an eloquent and intelligent manner. It might even be -and I firmly believe that- that this person might actually have discovered other elements that I missed, or simply did not find important, while his life experience allowed him to have a better insight or outlook on them.

But where does that leave us? Nowhere, I’m afraid. The issue was not resolved. But the conversation left me, an AA (analyzers anonymous) member, with many other questions.

Why do we read books? Why do some people like them and some people don’t? Why are we willing to spend hours on end to simply sit on a chair, or stand on bus, and read? If time is money, if time is precious, if life is short, then why do we do it? What is it in this little contraption that compels us to sit and dedicate ourselves, because that’s what it takes, to a block of paper with ink marks on it? And why is it that once we begin to unravel it, it is able to take on a life of its own? Because it is a live organism; a parasitic one that needs a host to live, but an organism nonetheless.

I believe it has become frighteningly obvious at this point that I am a biased and unconventional reader, meaning that I not only enjoy reading books, but cannot live without them. Although I am picky, and will not read anything that comes my way, I need to be surrounded by and immersed in several books constantly. I also feel the desire -something that was also brought up last night- to sometimes discuss what I read with others, because I find it just as interesting to hear what another person’s view on a book was, and what the differences in our outlooks signify.

And with that, I think I will, for now, make my closing argument, which is that all the questions that I posed are as difficult as they are interesting to at least ponder. And that you do not need to be an expert or have a PhD in order to experience the magic that is involved in reading a book -especially when you really like it… for your own reasons. And that no matter how ‘limited’ or ‘subjective’ the fruit of your reading labor was, the very fact that it evoked these very feelings or ideas means that the book has served its purpose and can now rest in peace…or on a nice shelf.

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