On books, reading, analysis and book reviews

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.DSCN3700

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.

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5 thoughts on “On books, reading, analysis and book reviews

  1. Just why I decided not to do Eng Lit at uni, and have never joined a book club!

  2. Liz at Libro says:

    I’m a happy and inveterate book reviewer and book-picker-apart, but I really hate the questions for book groups in the backs of books, even though I’m doing research that involved me asking questions of book groups!!

  3. Julie says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Certain people telling me I should watch the behind the screens discs for the Lord of the Ring films drove me mad! I want to find out about the book as I read it, not after I’ve read a criticism about it. There are books I’ve read and know almost off by heart, and know all the back story to all of the characters, even though the author has not written a word about them. If someone came along and took that back story away by “explaining” it to me, I’d never be able to read the book in the same waya again. It would be spoilt for me.

  4. Sparrowgrass says:

    Thanks for your comments, I’m really glad I’m not alone on this one! I was also a bit afraid I’d gone a bit “ranty” in this post so I hope you’re not just agreeing because you’re scared not to!

  5. Jon says:

    For me, joining a book club was partly because I wanted to share books and what I read with other people, and share what they read and thought. I realised that I missed something of what I did during my degree (German, with subsidiary English) in finding out more of what went into a novel, a play, a poem. So often since I’ve just read through a book (print and these days e- too) and, while I’ve enjoyed the experience of the words, the world they conjured, in the end – for me – it’s felt too restricted and even shallow. I needed a way of making something more of the experience. A club gives the chance to talk, listen – sometimes to fascinating insights, other times to real wit, other times to not so great comments, but all of the from living people you can share with. However, a book club’s only one way. Reviewing’s another, blogging too, doing another course too, or, maybe, doing some creative writing oneself (already covered by blogging and reviewing for some, mentioned just now!).
    It’s a shame that school and studies often put people off writing and literature, but it doesn’t have to put them off altogether. I had a terrific English teacher who I’m sure has inspired one major contemporary English novelist and left other more ordinary pupils with a lasting sense of the love of words, writing, books and literature – with or without reviews and clubs, but still most enjoyable when in some way shared.
    That’s enough from me!
    Hope you get that blog award – this is a super blog that’s anything but shallow and really, really thoughtful and ultimately very positive about life. Thank you!

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