Sunday, July 7, 2013

How our experiences influence our reading

I want to link to Ria's excellent post over at Bibliotropic not only because it's brilliant, but also because it's something that I've thought about a lot over the past few years. Ria wonders about whether we as readers can ever "read in a vacuum" or somehow read objectively, without prior experiences influencing the new stories we consume.
[...]I look back at some of my early reviews and wonder just what I was thinking. Some books I read and rated 3 years ago may now not pass muster if I read them for the first time today, because my experience has grown, my literary world expanded, and my opinions refined and honed beyond what they were in the past. [...] It’s a rare person, I think, who doesn’t look back on their past critiques and wonder what they might think now. Would they rate something higher or lower? Would they even bother to read that book now, if now was the first time they came across it?
I've written before about how I don't think that reviews are fixed walls, and that opinions can't change. As I mentioned in that post, I think that it's perfectly normal and understandable and legitimate to feel one thing immediately after finishing a book, and then realizing three months later that actually, no, your opinion is completely changed. Time does strange things to our perceptions of art and literature; it can certainly alter our overall opinions. There are books that I only moderately disliked when I read them, but years have turned me bitter and fiercely against them. Or books that I wasn't particularly impressed with that have slowly grown on me. Or books that I loved once when I was a certain type of reader, but years of experience (or changing tastes) means that I can no longer revisit the book without a sour taste.

This is exactly the not-vacuum that Ria is talking about. Everything influences us in some form. Ria specifically mentions the familiar "I've read it before" sentiment we bibliophiles encounter when reading a book that might have been good had it not been the twentieth book of its kind we'd read in a short while. But I think there's another, broader option. The fact is, I've found that as a book reviewer - by the sheer number and breadth of books I've read - I have inevitably changed my perceptions of literature. I can no longer read without the critical lenses on. Even when I read a book and might enjoy it on the simplest level, I can't help but pulling it apart on a deeper one. This has extended to music, to film, to television... everything.

A bookseller at this year's Hebrew Book Week made a recommendation for me based on the titles in my hand. "You've got strange choices there," she told me. "Really different books. Let me find you something else that's a bit... different." And she was right. The books I had chosen came from many different countries, represented many different styles, and had a distinctly "different" flavor from the majority of so-called mainstream literature. Years and years of reading have made me less inclined towards books whose plots I can easily pull apart, or books with cardboard cut-out characters, or books that fail to do anything new with age-old ideas. Innovation - even when I don't necessarily like it - is more important to me now than the internal elements that I once valued in books. My experiences have changed how I read - no vacuum.

It doesn't mean I can't read those old books again. It doesn't mean I can't occasionally read something predictable and still find it brilliant because of its writing or its characterization. It doesn't mean that just because there's a similar plot point to another novel I'd previously enjoyed, there is no value to the new book. It doesn't mean that I can't recognize innovation even in straight-forward contemporary novels that seem to break no boundaries. It just means that I as a reader am constantly - at every given moment - influenced by the books I've read before. Whether it's an outright comparison to a previously read book or a more general shift in my reading tastes, there is not a single moment that I can truly disconnect my individual reading experience from the hundreds of others I've had in my lifetime. I might be losing something small in terms of "spoiling" the experience and not coming "clean", but I am gaining something back as well. And it's kind of beautiful.

12 comments:

  1. I have had same experience. I remember a time that I had to re-rate most of my books on goodreads. It's funny you should say this. there are books I've come to love years after.

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    1. This is one of the reasons I'm not a huge fan of Goodreads ratings - I honestly feel like by rating a book I'm setting my opinion in stone. I often go back and adjust them, but it still feels like a strict formality.

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  2. Lovely post-I've been thinking that it's gotten a lot harder for me to give a book a 4, so more are getting 3 or 3.5 just because I've read so much in my preferred category of YA and it is harder to impress me, to give me something I really haven't read before.

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    1. I think we have different standards of rating! For me a 3 or a 3.5 is still a fairly good book. These days when I have to rate books, the majority end up with 2s or 3s (disappointing to moderate/good-but-flawed).

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  3. Great post. It's a nice thought, that we could separate ourselves from our reading, nicer still that we might be able to choose what we do, but ultimately it would be impossible. I know in my case I try to review as objectively as possible but if someone were to tell me I'm very subjective I couldn't speak against it. And if we were completely objective, we'd lose so much discussion.

    The more we read the more we know, I have to agree with Ria's thoughts. It makes it difficult to post a review, but that can't be helped! And I like that you've pointed out the 'twentieth book' factor, that Ria has. So often one person's opinion will differ from others because of their reading choices. It's hard to say a book is unique when it actually isn't, as far as the entirely of books goes.

    Innovation makes sense to me too. As much as a similar book might provide some entertainment, there's nothing new there to learn or think about. And yes to being unable to watch/read uncritically. This started for me in drama class, and it might be irritating but I've come to think of it as an ignorance is bliss idea, favouring the thought that it's not (even if it sometimes would be). If that makes sense.

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    1. About the subjectivity/objectivity thing, I also have to wonder why we feel like we need to be so objective. Critical reading obviously demands a bit of distance, but ultimately books don't just appeal to our dry, technical side, but to our emotions and our passions and our imaginations. That's the beauty of art, no? The more I find myself viewing the world critically, the more I also feel like these two things are intrinsically tied...

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  4. "somehow read objectively, without prior experiences influencing the new stories we consume..."

    Hmm. Doesn't seem quite right to me. I mean, a writer carefully chooses words, images and allusions that appeal to prior experiences. That's how the novel works.

    Just a thought.

    Cheers,
    K

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    1. But doesn't that sort of prove the point that the objectivity doesn't really exist? If the writer is slipping in references or allusions, then the assumption would be that we don't actually read in a vacuum... otherwise, why would the writer do that?

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    2. Only if you define objectivity in that way. Which I don't. It's too tendentious.

      Logical point: there's either a way the world is or not.

      Assume not.

      Then it's useless to talk about it, argue about it, experiment with it, etc.

      Assume yes, then we can make de jure references to it.

      Take Molloy, for instance. Beckett makes countless allusions to Home, The Bible, Dante and others, all around the notion of a journey. That's the central image of the novel.

      Now Beckett is appealing to a prior experience, namely, that I've read these other works and am familiar with them such that I can appreciate the deeper pattern that he's exploring.

      In other words, as a good objective reader, I had better catch on to these allusions, etc., lest the artistic design and intent of the novel is lost on me.

      Cheers,
      K

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    3. Oops, meant to say de re references.

      That's a plain object fact!

      K

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  5. One thing I'm noticing lately is that the authors I most like I share the same world view, political views, as they. There are exceptions. I like Celine's novels, although to me his world view was despicable.

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  6. This is so true, I was nodding along as I went.

    As I read more and more, I feel my thoughts on previous books are so different from what I posted on my blog. Sometimes, I am completely indifferent to books I once loved, at other times I look back sentimentally on books I was quite indifferent to at the time I read it.

    I think that's why reviews don't work as recommendations to influence another person's reading. Reviews are just like a hey, this book is out there, and it's about xyz topic, and if you are interested, you should pick it up because it's fairly well-written.

    I think the well-written aspect doesn't change as much, or does it?

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