Thursday, August 28, 2008

It's just you.

btt button

If you’re anything like me, one of your favorite reasons to read is for the story. Not for the character development and interaction. Not because of the descriptive, emotive powers of the writer. Not because of deep, literary meaning hidden beneath layers of metaphor. (Even though those are all good things.) No … it’s because you want to know what happens next?

Or, um, is it just me?

It's just you. Well, maybe not just you; but it's not me. Story can keep the pages turning, no doubt about that. When a book has nothing else going for it, story can pull me through, but I read for character, even more than that for relationships. Relationships between the characters and each other, the characters and themselves, and the characters and the events transpiring. I also read for the delight of how an author is going to pull me through those events. With some authors, the pleasure is how they delay getting to the next plot point, and what they tell me along the way rather than the fact that something new is happening. With Sarah Salway's Tell Me Everything for example, it was the characters and Salway's wonderful descriptions that kept me reading. My prejudices probably would have made me care a lot less about what happened to Molly were it not for the way Salway told her story.

What happens in the Zooey section of Franny and Zooey? Almost nothing. Some cute, obnoxious know-it-all takes a long bath and tries to kick his worried mother out of the bathroom. It's through the humor of their relationship and the amusement of Zooey's monologue that we finally do learn something about a character who isn't there, but that takes a while to get going. But what pleasure Bessie and Zooey are to hang out with. If you read Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room or The Waves wanting to know what happens next, good luck. The Waves is one of the greatest modern novels written English, if you ask me. Whole lives are lived in it, but its pages are an archive of private experience happening inside each character. The other passages in it are descriptions of the sun on the water at different times of day, and yet people graduate from school, become employed, World War I occurs, and life and death are bridged in this book! A stunner, many stories, and yet no stories unfolding in that and then this happened kind of way.

Tim Winton's new book Breath barely has a plot. There are events that happened to the central character as an adolescent that he remembers, and those comprise the plot, such as it is. But mostly there are two contrasting characters drawn with great complexity and idolize a third character - also interestingly drawn but whose complete story is shrouded in mystery. They do a bunch of surfing. The book is about big things - the value of risk taking and what we live life for - but there are only small sections of the book where what happens next is the reason for turning the page.

Even though Dickens is a story teller, and his plots central to the pleasure of reading him, they would take up far fewer pages without his descriptions of character and place. It is the pleasure of his elaborate and hilarious descriptions that a) delay the plot so that there is dramatic tension b) helped him get paid by filling out the reading experience to fit the serialized format of the day and c) they allow one to build a relationship with the characters over time so that, when something big does happen to them, you really care (the author's emotive power). OMG, Smike's death in Nicholas Nickleby - what a killer. I've read it over and over and cry every time.

My current read - Middlemarch - forces the reader to slow down by not just writing about what happened. I have been thinking about that as I read it. I must take time. The whole reading experience is about who it is happening to, where it is happening, and because of this context, what it means, because Eliot is an author of ideas, not just events. She moves back, back, back with her camera - until the context encompasses the entire world. To support the boldness of some of her statements, she tempers them with humor and offers plenty of context.

Finally, layers of meaning are probably one of the features of a novel I read for the most. How complex and interrelated are the parts of the book and how successfully does the author take big ideas or simple motifs that comprise the content of the book and weave them through the form of the book. Tim Winton did this beautifully with the idea of breath in Breath. Richard Powers is amazing at weaving together science, psychology, and a love story in broad books that are as intellectually satisfying as they are beautiful artistic creations. Iris Murdoch is wonderful in the ways she intertwines excruciatingly soap-opera-y plots with ideas. Hopeful Monsters by Nicolas Mosley (one of Sheila's and my favorite books ever) is - well what is is not about? It is the history of the 20th century, it is physics, biology, politics, philosophy..., it's a love story too. It is as all-encompassing a reading experience as I have ever had. Multiple layers of meaning that keep me interested, and the way form can be integrated with content when those meanings feed the language and the structure of what your reading is what distinguishes a great book from a nice read. I don't just read to turn the page. Some books should make you linger, some books should be hard, some shake you up. I love when the experience a book puts the reader through exists on so many levels that it seems to be about the entire world. I look for those books. That is one of my favorite reasons to read.


Debbie said...

Wow Ted. You, of course, have a good point (or points). There are lots of book I read that aren't "page turners" but when I'm done, I'm really glad I read them. Does that make sense?

Ted said...

Debbie - Absolutely, it makes sense. I loved this question because it was provocative and came from a strong personal point of view. I hope you don't feel that I was disagreeing with what gives you pleasure in reading. I was writing strongly of those things that do it for me.

Anonymous said...

One of the greatest story I read was The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. It kept me tottaly hooked despite being a tome of a book. The characterization is great too!

Booking through stories

SmilingSally said...

Yes, there's a satisfaction at having read a book that makes you THINK and perhaps even changes your thinking.

John (@bookdreamer) said...

Very erudite response. Mine was far plainer fare

Anonymous said...

I agree, though you have set your arguments out far more eloquently than I did. But we started with almost the same sentence!

Chrisbookarama said...

I lean more towards what you say than the original BTT comment.

Anonymous said...

I'm always looking for a unique image or word that has been used by the author to convey something in a way I would never have imagined but which works perfectly. And voila, my vision of the world or an emotion is instantly transformed and enriched.

Lovely post, and found myself nodding along. Reading is the best hobby, isn't it? :-)