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Delicious descriptions: Julian Davies on reading

January 25, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Julian Davies’ Crow mellow. It’s an enjoyable and at times provocative read. I’d love to share many descriptions and scenes from it but, since this is a reader’s blog, I’ve decided to share some thoughts relevant to my focus made by the main character, poet Phil Day. Much of the discussion in the novel concerns the creation and criticism of art, but here Phil is considering its consumption, specifically in this case, reading:

Reading, writing. If writing was a perplexing activity, reading had to be somewhat puzzling. What could be more passive? He was more of a reader than most, an absorber of information on trust, on a whim and a wish. And what did he believe he was getting from the activity? Entertainment? Well, of a sort, but that was never enough. Betterment? He wasn’t so benighted a romantic as to believe anyone was improved by books. If it was information, wasn’t it a bloodless sort of knowledge? What else then? No, the most he hoped from reading were some silent conversations. If the authors were long dead, the interaction seemed more animated. This was a simple paradox simply to be enjoyed.

I was fascinated by this, because sometimes I wonder myself about whether this activity I so love is too passive. Should I be getting out there instead and doing something? There’s plenty to do – both around the house and outside it in the service of others. Of course, being a reader, I argue with myself that it’s not too passive, but on what grounds? Entertainment goes only so far – and anyhow, I’m not sure that I read specifically for entertainment, though reading is something I enjoy. And information is part of it, but less so – particularly if we are talking facts – from reading fiction. But betterment? This is a good one because there has been quite a bit of discussion recently about the value of reading.

In 2013 Huffington Post listed, with some supporting evidence, “7 Unconventional Reasons Why You Absolutely Should Be Reading Books” which include things like improved empathy and staving off Alzheimer’s. Last year, several newspapers reported on research published in Science which argued that “that social skills are improved by reading fiction – specifically high-end stuff*, the 19th-century Russians, the European modernists, the contemporary prestige names … [that] those who read extracts from literary novels, and then took tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, did significantly better than other subjects who read serious nonfiction or genre fiction.” Science writer, Christian Jarrett, at the wired.com, though, does put some breaks on claims that reading changes our brains.

So, I’m sort of with Phil. I hope reading helps stave off dementia (which is “betterment” for me) and I’m romantic enough to hope that reading might improve our ability to empathise, but I don’t think “betterment” is the main reason I read. Conversation, however, is another thing – silent conversation with the author, sometimes conveyed via marginalia, and conversation with other readers about what I’ve read. These conversations challenge my intellect. But there are other reasons I read too. I read to escape into other worlds, both near to and far from my own, and I read for the emotional hit – to laugh, to cry, to feel all sorts of emotions (although I try to avoid fear!!) What all these add up to in the end is something very simple: I read because it gives me pleasure.

I’ve titled the post “Julian Davies on reading” but it’s his character Phil Day speaking. Is this what Davies thinks too? Possibly, though Crow mellow being the sort of satire it is, I think all we can assume is that Davies is throwing some ideas out there and that, since these ideas are coming from Phil, we should give them particular consideration.

And now, you know what I’m going to ask: Why do you read?

* The high-end literary word used by the Sydney Morning Herald writer!

25 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2015 12:06 am

    What a great piece! It’s really made me stop for a moment. I think it’s similar to you – because it’s pleasurable, and because it challenges me. While it’s not about escapism per se, I love that I can transport myself into other worlds, and other peoples’ heads. Through the right description I’m able to experience new things, or able to experience things I know in a new or different way – that’s the beauty, I think.

    • January 26, 2015 9:24 am

      Thanks Tara for expanding on the “transport” into other worlds idea. This is, I think, a major part of it, really, isn’t it?

  2. Glen Hunting permalink
    January 26, 2015 1:22 am

    Hello Sue,

    As much as I’d like to, I don’t think I could really claim ‘betterment’ as a benefit I’ve enjoyed from reading, if only because the criteria for betterment are too difficult to define to anyone else’s satisfaction (how I define betterment to myself is another thing altogether!) Similarly, I think ‘stimulation’ is a more applicable term than ‘entertainment’ as it pertains to my experience – entertainment seems to imply mere amusement or expulsion of boredom, whereas stimulation potentially encompasses both the emotions and the intellect.

    I can certainly relate to the notions of having conversations, and of being moved by the content and execution of the work (‘feeling’.) I think the kind of reading that includes both of these is definitely not ‘passive’, but very active. Reading (and all ‘active’ transmission of ‘stories’ via narratives) is a process by which we encounter new ways of thinking and feeling associated with new characters and events and situations. But at the same time we are also recognising the familiar and the universal in these same things, and considering how all these elements relate back to both the familiar and the unfamiliar within our own selves (that is, us as readers.) Of course, the degree of ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ experience that is portrayed and received, and the interplay between the two, varies from book to book and even from genre to genre e.g. there is almost always a ‘personal’ element, however slight, to political or polemical fiction in which the subject matter is largely external to an individual.

    All art, including literature, extends and remoulds human experience, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically. But it can only do this when we engage, and this requires effort. Yes, we need to make sure we get off our bums more than occasionally, and move and operate in the ‘real world’. But ideally, reading and the consumption of art should augment, compliment, even inform the whole of a ‘life’ rather than distract from it.

    • January 26, 2015 9:30 am

      Beautifully said, Glen. I don’t think I can add to it. I agree that “stimulation” is a better word than “entertainment” for me though, like “betterment”, it does depend on your definition of “entertainment”. Hubby and I have regular, mostly unresolved discussions, about the definition of “entertainment”! I love your last sentence re the consumption of art … perfect.

  3. Meg permalink
    January 26, 2015 8:05 am

    I do love to read, it gives me so much. I agree it is a passive pleasure physically, but the ‘silent conversation’ with the author is most satisfying. He/she takes me to other worlds, and I gain emotionally as well as knowledge.

    • January 26, 2015 9:31 am

      Ha ha, Meg … I love your distinction of physical passivity versus mental! Well said.

  4. January 26, 2015 11:24 am

    I read because it’s a compulsion; and live in dread that there might be a time when I can’t. I read literature because there is pleasure in words and meaning well put together. I read non fiction for information and the delight in fulfilling my ambition to learn one new fact everyday. But I agree with all Meg said, it is a passive pleasure but I gain from it.
    And I’m saddened that neither of my grandsons read books or even stories electronically.

    • January 26, 2015 4:55 pm

      Ah yes, compulsion is what many of us feel isn’t it “crlbth59”. And I agree, some of the pleasure comes exactly for the words – from the feel of them in your mouth and the way authors tease with meanings.

      Have your grandsons never read or are they going through a teenage phase? I hope it’s just the latter because that probably means there’s still hope!

  5. January 26, 2015 3:06 pm

    Years ago, I read in another novel by Aldous Huxley, I think it was Eyeless in Gaza, about a character (female) who read and took pleasure in books but contributed nothing to the literary project, so to speak, either by reviewing or writing herself. (Goodness, it could even have been Chrome Yellow.) It was a damning passage (and not a little misogynist) but it had a lasting impact. Was I such a woman, I wondered. From that moment on I was determined to make my contribution, however small or undistinguished. And so I did. My first review was published in the Canberra Times in 1970; it was of a collection of pieces – In a Time of Torment – by the legendary American journalist I.F. Stone. I’ve been reviewing, with a small break when I was in the public service (except for one film review under my maiden name), ever since. I think reviewing is a noble and much needed profession, every bit as necessary as authorship. A reviewer is a little like a dragoman, or psychopomp, taking the reader into a new country, a new realm, gesturing towards the points of interest, signposting along the way.

    Like you, cribth59, reading is a bit of a compulsion with me. I think, above all, I read to learn, whether the book is fiction or not. I learn about people and places and times I might never have the chance to encounter except in my imagination, through the author’s special insights. I don’t like reading books that manipulate my feelings, though. I like books that take risks, with language, or structure, or ideas. I thiink that the storytelling is so much a part of the human experience, so much involved in what makes us human, that I can’t imagine a world without it. Reading and writing, as distinct from other forms of storytelling, are exciting because of their dependence on words, and words have always been magic for me. I’m thrilled by the notion that every word itself is a story, with its own complicated history and evolving sets of nuance. It’s sad for a writer to come by incomprehension in a reader, especially if that reader is a reviewer, but that’s to be expected. You can’t set out trying to please, trying to make people love you, which some writers do. Writing, like reading, is a way of exploring the world, and once I accepted that, I was able to accept that I wasn’t going to always take everyone with me.

    ‘Nuff said. Thanks for another stimulating post, WG, and thanks to Julian and Phil. There’s a book I’m really looking forward to reading.

    • January 26, 2015 5:11 pm

      Thanks Sara … I like the idea of the reviewer being a dragoman or psychopomp. Even little amateur ones like me do like to gesture to points of interest, to ideas worth exploring, to different ways of being. I only wish I could keep all I read in my head better (as I did in my twenties!) so I could draw better links between different authors’ points of interest as the best reviewers do.

      Yes, I agree with the idea of “learning” (rather than Phil’s reference to “information”). I do learn from my reading and I draw on that learning in my life. Whether that makes me “better” is another thing, but it can make me feel more competent sometimes as in “I recognise this situation and this might be a way to respond.” There are some things I’ve read that have very definitely informed my life – or, at least my understanding of myself.

      As for reader incomprehension, that is something I always fear when writing reviews. It’s one think to not comprehend privately, but it’s another whole thing to do it in public!

      Thanks for engaging in the conversation. I’m so enjoying everyone’s inputs.

      • Glen Hunting permalink
        January 26, 2015 10:43 pm

        And I’d like to say that, whether or not either of you write another word in review or criticism in future, you are still being engaged and enriched by the art and passing it on via debate and conversation. And that’s what art and literature are for. I think Mr Huxley was a little harsh to suggest that consuming art without either producing it or reviewing it via the ‘official’ channels was tantamount to leech-like behaviour. Would it be harsh of me to speculate that, had more readers tried to write novels or criticism, he mightn’t have appreciated the plethora of hopeful pundits and artists crowding his space?

        • January 26, 2015 11:10 pm

          Fair speculation Glen! And I like your defence of the consumption of art without formal contribution.There are all sorts of ways of contributing and engaging as you say.

        • January 27, 2015 10:22 am

          I never said I thought Huxley was right! But I was young and impressionable.

        • January 27, 2015 12:40 pm

          LOL Sara — I like both answers to this — you didn’t say he was right AND your were young! Having a foot in both camps is the way to go. You might as well cover the bases in this world I reckon.

  6. January 26, 2015 3:51 pm

    Yes, that’s a good passage from Crow Mellow, isn’t it? i feel now that I didn’t pay it, or the discussion about reading, sufficient attention when writing my review.
    And what a good day for such a post – with Jackie French being named senior Australian of the Year! I know Jackie has worked hard to promote and foster children’s reading, and there’s a terrific essay of hers in Australian Author about how crucial reading was to her when she was a child. I wonder how many of our reading habits and pleasures date from our childhoods? As to the nature of those pleasures, i agree with everything that’s been said here.

    • January 26, 2015 5:16 pm

      Thanks Dorothy. I wouldn’t feel badly about not paying attention to this in your review. I didn’t either – which is why I snuck in a Delicious Descriptions! I like being a blogger!

      Nice catch re Jackie French. I posted this before I heard that news so am glad you made a connection.

      And yes, I suspect most readers are made in childhood. I’m trying to think of anyone I’ve being asked about their readings lives not saying it started in childhood. There must surely be some, but setting up the patterns and the skill early is so critical isn’t it.

  7. January 26, 2015 9:52 pm

    Fantastic post and fantastic comments too – insightful and thoughtful. Thanks to all! I think my vote falls to stimulation, too, rather than to entertainment. Within the best books I am completely engaged in another world and stimulated to think. And now that I’m thinking about why I read, I wonder if it’s because through reading I learn more about myself?

    • January 26, 2015 11:04 pm

      Thanks Michelle, it’s been a good discussion, hasn’t it. I think you are right about learning more about oneself – and it can be a bit confronting, now I think about it. That “what would I do” question, for example, that books can raise can make me feel wanting sometimes.

  8. January 27, 2015 5:55 am

    Not an easy question to answer! I read for all kinds of reasons, to pass the time, for entertainment, to escape, to learn, to see the world through someone else’s eyes, because I love the art and on and on. I don’t think reading is a passive activity at all. No, I’m not building a house or running a race but I am mentally and emotionally engaged, focused, alert to the text and what is going on in it, thinking and interpreting, seeking to understand, and I think that is a very active thing. And who knows what I might do because of something I read? I might be inspired to do something that could change the world or at least my small place in it.

    • January 27, 2015 7:56 am

      Oh yes, Stefanie, it’s obvious from your blog that your reading is anything but passive. And, I love your last line. Who knows indeed. Reading can have such an effect. I’m loving the answers to this question.

      • ian darling permalink
        January 27, 2015 9:12 pm

        For most, not all, writers the reader is a vital part of the motivation to write any sort of book. I agree that reading is not merely passive and perhaps, above the reading of cereal packets, never so. Even if you are just letting someone know that you enjoyed a book you are involved in the “spreading the word” about that book or writer. I don’t know if I would put reading above listening to music or watching a film or television although a reader probably does need some more concentration.

        • January 27, 2015 11:36 pm

          Thanks Ian … Interesting comment re concentration. I feel, for me anyhow, thst reading requires more effort than television. Music is perhaps more complicated. Some music, like some books I suppose, requires little concentration, but other music like, say, a string quartet, requires a lot, though I don’t really have the skills or training to apply to such listening as I do to literature. Is this making sense? It sounds a bit hierarchical doesn’t it!

        • ian darling permalink
          January 27, 2015 11:50 pm

          I think that reading literature is “simply” one of the best ways that human beings can discover themselves. Think of all those iconic characters that meant-to-read literature have given us from Robinson Crusoe to Emma Bovary, Jane Eyre to Ah Q that have been enormous additions to reader’s cultural capital.

        • January 28, 2015 7:59 am

          Yes, agree Ian …. And I was reading a writer yesterday on “why I write”. Her main answer was to discover learn about herself! Makes sense!

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