Reading and the Context of Reading

I just finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and it was phenomenal. I will be writing a few posts about this book over the next week or two (two weeks from now is my Thanksgiving Break), including an actual review. For now, though, I am still digesting what I read, in part because I’ve been busy and in part because it is that sort of book. I just briefly want to note something about exigent circumstances.

One of my favorite books, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March was trashed in a recent review by a reader whose taste I respect. His critique was that the book dragged with excessive (“Dickensonian”) description and moralizing that is particularly outdated. I don’t totally disagree with him, either. The book does moralize, and were I to reread it, I may well agree that the story drags. However, I read it at the end of summer as my job wound down and before graduate school began, so I had ample free time in which to read. Now I am teaching, tutoring, working on my dissertation and trying to be more active in my other writing pursuits…time is at more of premium. For me, at least, the time I have to read has an influence on my enjoyment of books.

In The Order of the Book, Roger Chartier talks about the overall structure of a book and refers to the debate about breaking the bible into chapter and verse. Creating these chunks, they said, destroyed the unity of the document and encourages the reader to treat each section individually, rather than as part of a much larger whole. When a reader [1] has to read a book in short spurts over the course of a month or more, the circumstance of reading impedes the ability of the narrative to enthrall the reader. I noticed this because Snow put me into a trance with its beautiful prose and multiple, overlapping and interwoven narrative threads. When I could only read one chapter at a time and, at times, with days passing between sessions, I felt as though there was a level of the book I was missing out on. Yes, I got the same story and read the same words as I would have otherwise, but my inability to dedicate enough time meant that I missed out on some of the magic. Snow was a great book in any situation, but if I had had the time to spare, I could have read it in just a day or two, only to emerge dazed and euphoric.

Not all books are good enough to induce this trance. Most good books don’t even have this effect, though I suspect that it is easier to experience when the reader has more free time. Ironically, it was the powerful of effect of this book and the exigent circumstances that broke the trance that suggested to me the importance of the context of reading.

[1] The anonymous “a reader” from here on out is a shorthand for “me as reader”

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