While I got good marks for GCSE and A-level English literature, as far as I’m concerned, analysing stuff I’ve read spoils the book. I don’t want to pick anything apart looking at characterisation, language, style, key themes or whatever else the academics and reviewers can think of. Why not? Because to me the point of reading is escapism. Why would I want to deconstruct the world I escaped into? That just rubs in that it isn’t real.
I read a book (or watch a film) as if it is real. I don’t care that rabbits don’t talk, the Matrix doesn’t exist or that dragons weren’t actually used in the Napoleonic wars. In the alternate realities I visit through film and literature, anything can be true. Realities are just different. Reading about a dystopic future alien planet is no different from reading about another country. I’m reading about a place that’s different from here. As long as the book or film is reasonably well thought through I can absorb the facts and rules that define that other country and its history; learn its culture*, if you will. Clearly I’m not the only one who does this – people are always discussing which Hogwarts house they would be sorted into and what their patronus would be; whether they’d rather be a hobbit or an elf; what Captain Kirk’s childhood was like; whether they’d choose Edward or Jacob. Many people write fan fiction because they know the mythology of their chosen culture so well that they can add to it within the rules of that reality. So far I’ve mostly mentioned the alternate realities of sci-fi and fantasy, but even a novel set in your home town and written about someone exactly like you is still an alternate reality that you can believe in and escape to.
So why would anyone want to pick apart the book that brings you the alternate reality? Bring the fragile edifice of suspended disbelief crashing down around you? A book or a film is a holiday from the inescapable everyday reality – so why trash your holiday photos and break your souvenirs? I like to hold the stories in my head, return to my favourites time and again, tell them to myself when I can’t sleep. How could I do that if I looked at the words rather than seeing the story? To me, dissecting the writing is like reading a word on the screen by looking at the individual pixels. Yes, you need the pixels to convey the meaning and some fonts and screens are clearer than others, but if you want to understand what the writer is communicating, stop looking at the trees and see the wood!
I realise that some people get pleasure from reading and writing reviews, but I have to say I cannot understand it. I see the point of analysing writers you admire in order to improve your own writing style, but it’s not for me. I have a strong distaste for almost everything I ever analysed at school aside from Chaucer and Shakespeare and I believe they are only excepted because with them there was sufficient distraction in understanding the unfamiliar language that the amount of other analysis was reduced from what it might have been.
This post was triggered by “Book club questions” in the back of a book I just finished reading. I knew I didn’t want to look at them and yet I was drawn to them and then offended by them. I cannot say quite why I had such a strong reaction but I am repulsed by them. Maybe I feel that my reaction to the book is somehow invalidated by them. Their wording irritates me, with their implications that the characters could have behaved differently and their assumption that I want to tell people which part of the book evoked an emotional reaction. Rationally I see that these questions are aimed at people who want to talk about their reactions to the book, but it feels like an invasion of my privacy to have it implied that I had an emotional reaction, let alone to ask me to discuss it. I cannot explain my reaction to these bookclub questions; all that I can conclude is that I should never join a book-club!
*Or Culture, for the Ian M. Banks readers.