This morning during breakfast, I read this article about what it means to teach high school writers about being published.
There was one line, from a student working on a literary publication for high schoolers, that particularly hit me:
Editing for Polyphony forced me to slow down. I began to realize that previously, my eyes would skim but never engage with the words on a page; I read for the thrill, not for thought. I considered reading not an exchange but a bestowal of pleasure from the author to me.
Reading for the Thrill
About five years ago, there seemed to be a swell in writing advice that was all about the thrill. And don’t get me wrong, I adore fun novels that don’t require as much effort to get through — things that are just a blast to read. (In fact, the last couple things I’ve read have been those kinds of stories.)
But I also love taking time with deeper novels and short stories. I love being stopped by a beautifully written line and plopping a book down on my chest and thinking about it.
I summed up my feelings about it all in this short entry.
Those First Stories
Like many kids, the books I read early on were the books that seemed more fun. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory led to Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. The Hobbit took me on an adventure I read over and over. Jack London tales of adventure convinced me my future was in the Yukon or on the sea.
Then there was Dandelion Wine, which somehow…seemed deeper. Sure, there were kids having fun, but there was a darkness to the tale as well. There were sections about what it is to simply appreciate being alive; what it is to appreciate something as comforting as simply sitting on a front porch. All of this, and kids realizing that time is always there giving us moments, but also taking something from us as well.
Later came the Stories of John Cheever. I’ll admit that in those first attempts, I didn’t read them all. But as a seventh grader, I could tell there was something more there. And after everyone in the house had read John Irving’s The World According to Garp, it was finally my turn.
I would never put thrilling stories aside, because why would I when I could have the thrill and think about what I was reading. (Often, in the same book!)
Reading for Escape
I understand reading for escape. And with a growing market for young adult fiction, there’s a great combination of escape while still inspiring thinking that didn’t seem as prevalent in the books marketed toward people my age when I was in my teenage years.
The world is busy enough without books chronicling the rush of life and all that comes with it: stress, grief, responsibility, and struggle. After a long day at work, sometimes coming home after dark, I’m just happy people are reading.
But I’m still struck by the words of a young adult in the article I mentioned:
I read for the thrill, not for thought.
Reading for Thought
While I know one person is not a large sample size, I’ve seen many adults I know cut back on their reading (or stop completely) in the past decade or so. But I see younger people devouring books.
Obviously, I know, adults are still devouring books and — despite the seemingly annual claims that publishing is on its knees — people of all ages are reading.
The quote I’ve used in this entry makes me happy. There is nothing wrong with reading for the thrill, but that memory of discovering how much deeper stories could be is one of my favorite memories ever.
That feeling of not only appreciating what is happening in a story, but appreciating its structure, too. Realizing what some authors put in constructing a sentence that does more in 25 words than some novels achieve in 250 pages. What goes into the kind of book you still carry in your head decades later.
Why Not Both?
Of course, there’s something to be said for having both: the thrill and the thought. And I agree.
Whether it’s a main character’s foul ball killing the narrator’s mother (John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany) or a clown making a child disappear for good in front of a crowd (Anne Ursu’s The Disapparation of James), good literary novels are not without their thrills. But Jeffrey Ford’s Ahab’s Return and everything I’ve read by Agatha Christie has also made me think.
For me, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Some stories will be more thrilling, while others more reflective. And when one stumbles upon a book that does both things well, it not only makes the world fall away for a while, but can even change one’s view about the everything around them.
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Image: Nguyen Thu Hoai
Mark Felps says
I have to admit that as I get older, I tend to care less and less what writers have to say about life and the world, in part because I find a lot of it sort of facile and embedded in an outlook that’s incredibly privileged. That probably has more to do with the MFA to literary publishing pipeline than anything else.
That said, I always have time for a Lincoln in the Bardo or a World According to Garp or short stories by Homes or Hempel.