1. pinelopikappa
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    pinelopikappa Member

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    Why do people read literature?

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by pinelopikappa, Mar 4, 2010.

    Last night I saw an interview of the writer Antonio Skármeta , and he was asked why people read novels. I thought it was an interesting question, and I present it to the forum. Antonio Skármeta had a lot to say on the subject, which made me think that's it's something a writer usually considers.

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    So, why do you think people read literature (not just novels)?
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    There are lots of (academic) ways you can approach that question, so here I go...

    The novel is a relatively new form of writing, far younger than poetry, drama and non-fictional prose. It grew (and please understand I am only referring to Western novels here) out of those other forms, particularly "travelogues". You are probably familiar with Robinson Crusoe (which some consider the first English novel) and Gulliver's Travels (which all the others consider the first novel) -- both of these grow out of the travel writing tradition and introduce the things that we come to expect in novels today: a narrator, a protagonist, a narrative arc (granted, some of these are common to drama and poetry too, but it wasn't until these works in the 18th century that they became expected in prose). Gulliver's Travels was immediately successful in its time, and thus the popular novel was born.

    Literature, on the other hand, has more problematic origins. It began as an adjective that referred to well-educated men, then came to refer to the materials they read to become well educated. It encompassed philosophy, religious and scientific texts, as well as the classics. In its time, Gulliver's Travels was pointedly not literature. However, as the popularity of the novel continued, it began to gain academic attention and eventually, as certain British universities initiated English Literature programs, the definition came to refer at first to both the traditional "literature" and popular novels. It is around this time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that Literary Theory and Criticism takes on the importance it has today (although, as many will know, the notion of criticism had existed since Antiquity).

    Which brings us to why literature has, and will continue to be, enjoyed and widely read.

    Darwinian literary theorists (if you're interested in this field, Brian Boyd has an excellent new book on the subject) contend that literature engages with our love of play and patterns. They argue that our desire to tell stories is a social adaptation, while our enjoyment of the novel in particular springs from our ability to follow (and enjoy) complex storylines, complex psychologies, linguistic playfulness and pattern-making and the identification of recurring themes and motifs, among other things (this is articulated far more eloquently and with detailed examples in Boyd's book). For Bakhtin, a Russian theorist, the enjoyment of literature and novels stems from the realistic and complex psychologies and competing discourses that make up that novel (he was speaking specifically about Dostoevsky--Problems of Dostoevsky's Art is considered his seminal work in which he discusses polyphony, the unfinalizable self (in other word's, the notion that a character is never complete) and the importance of competing groups). Narratologists contend that it is our love of reading stories about other people that drives our love of literature, Marxists and Socialist critics might argue that novels are to be enjoyed for their ability to critique a particular social period or political system.

    Of course, there still remains the question of what (besides an existing prejudice) distinguishes writing from literature, but I've gotta go...maybe I'll post more soon.
     
  3. Afterburner
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    Afterburner New Member

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    Simply put, I love stories. It's as simple as that for me. Any novel that can take me away from by everyday life and send me someone new, throwing twists and turns in the way, is something I want to read - only if to escape for a little bit.
     
  4. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss New Member

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    It's a little like having a taste for fine wine. And just like fine wine, the magical elements that produce the outcome require careful cultivation at the source. I think that's what writers do when they strive for excellence in their own writing by studying great works and trying to figure out what accounts for that greatness in the experience of reading them. They’re tending the grapes in the vineyard.

    But writers aside, I don't think a conscious choice is made to read "literature" over entertaining pop fiction. I think "entertainment" is simply an inadequate way of describing the experience of reading great writing. It's more like something grows out of reading that guides at least some readers toward an ever more meaningful outcome. Like anyone seeking the best of anything, a reader of literature comes to know where and how to find what he likes. Even develops a taste for nuances that can be found in lesser works, too.

    Just like in any other endeavor, a reader strives to maximize the experiences he most enjoys. In reading for the experience of reading, I think maybe for some readers, if not most, this means choosing more and more challenging, more complex, more subtle, or more maybe "experiential" kinds of books to read. There are other ways to carry out this kind of experience (through any art really), but because I am drawn to words myself, the written story is my own dance of choice.

    I love Arron's answer to this question, which is a positively fascinating "outside-in" analysis of literature and why people read it. On a more micro inside-out-level, the reason I read "fiction" (either short or long) is to dance for a moment with someone else's imagination. This is a very particular kind of relationship between reader and author that exceeds the experience between reader and story. In the greatest writing I read, "story" is merely the conduit between my imagination and that of the author's.
     
  5. Gannon
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    Gannon Senior Member Contributor

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    An interesting discussion about the difference between literature and "lesser" materials - it may not have been the OP's question but that's the way discussion is heading.

    In Vonnegut's Timequakes the prolific, semi-biographical sci-fi author Kilgore Trout says, "I don't write literature. Literature is is all those la-di-da monkeys next door care about."

    Next door is the American Academy of Art and Letters. The distinction between literature and that which is not held as such certainly contains an element of elevation. Elevate your writing to literature and you are an author, fall beneath the cut off and you are merely a writer. Trout repeatedly calls himself a writer, but never to my current knowledge an author.

    What defines the difference is likely subjective but acceptance by the established literature peer group is likely a factor. Is institutional snobbery par for the course? I'd say so, but also that it doesn't matter. It tends to be fairly obvious what is high art and what is pulp, and I'm not here to judge as a healthy dose of both can be enjoyed. I'll watch developments here with interest.
     
  6. writewizard
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    writewizard New Member

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    I like learning new things, and I like learning about people.
     
  7. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss New Member

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    I'd be the first to agree that what defines literature lies in the subjective experience of reading something presented in an elegant way that outdistances other stories that don't measure up. I don't think any reader of fiction would argue that there aren't degrees of excellence in the stories he reads; and same is true for every other singular reader--whatever tastes, preferences, comprehension skills, and reading objectives he brings to the table.

    I think refining a definition of what constitutes literature has more to do with the collective experience of all readers whose experiences are shared by many others. So it's not a stretch to imagine that a further and significant clarification is contributed by readers who study what rises to that collective level of shared experience.

    I think people like to imagine that academic snobbery accounts unfairly for the choices and picks we hear most about (and especially those we simply cannot fully appreciate). But I wouldn't agree that this means there's some committee of la-di-da monkeys who can, should, or do dictate what constitutes greatness to everyone else--only that someone must make decisions about structuring a course of study for readers who wish to learn more in some organized way. I'm sure everyone notices inevitable disagreement--sometimes vehement--among readers' opinions of exactly the same books or authors and their "greatness" or lack of it.

    Absent the support of a cultural reaction to a piece of writing that might qualify, it's just a piece of writing that might qualify. Which is to say that while one monkey identifies a work that shines in the night for himself, announcing his discovery "don't make it so." He can write theses and papers and essays and critiques touting his defense for a work or an author (even one who's unknown or dead and forgotten). But, till and unless there's some consensus among many, his read, after all, is just that--his own singular read with no more validity than yours or than mine.

    I also agree that writing stories and aiming for excellence is not at all about producing literature. Writing stories is only about writing stories. Cultural consensus among readers is what produces literature the same way consensus produces any fine art. And, as with any fine art, there are folks who perceive it as comically valuless and others who understand it quite differently.
     
  8. benny
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    benny New Member

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    I think it's the same as with music or any other type of art.

    There are some who rely on it for entertainment, and some who use it to find meaning.
     
  9. OPTiiMUM
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    OPTiiMUM New Member

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    I read literature/novels because I enjoy it. Simple.

    I was thinking of writing quite a lengthy response to this question, but then I just thought of it with an open mind, and found the answer.
     
  10. bhugy
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    bhugy New Member

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    I sometimes have a very physical, emotional response to stories. When I first read the short story "For Esme- With Love and Squalor" by J.D. Salinger, I felt reinvigorated. I literally wanted to go do something, like take over the world or write something really good. I keep reading new things to find more stories that can make me feel this way.

    Sometimes it's just one line or one scene from a story that can put me in a great mood, like the echoing 'They is, they is, they is' in Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain." Just remembering these kinds of things can make me feel like I have fantastic, secret knowledge of something about the world. Coming back to stories that have that kind of power really improve my attitude if I'm in the dumps about something. Even if I'm already in a good mood, things like this can really light up the world.

    As a writer, there is of course the fact that reading more helps you improve, yada yada yada. It does help you see all the different kinds of voices and styles and techniques, which is definitely a good thing. And having all those staggeringly great lines and scenes in mind when writing can be really good motivation.
     
  11. InkDream
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    InkDream New Member

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    Because they are all full of themes that are still relevant in life today. And some of them are just beautiful. People don't talk or write like they used to.
     
  12. Gigi_GNR
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    Gigi_GNR Guys, come on. WAFFLE-O. Contributor

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    They teach us new things and take us to new places. :)
     
  13. pinelopikappa
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    pinelopikappa Member

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    There are so many reasons, aren't there? Maybe it's the love for language, for tales, for escaping, for dreaming, for learning, etc.
     
  14. SilverWolf0101
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    SilverWolf0101 Member

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    Honestly? I don't exactly know why I prefer reading over anything else. All I know is that I'd gladly curl up in a chair or something reading a thick book, or a thin one (but they only last me a few hours). It's true that the computer, the playstation, the gameboy, my sister's psp and the family dog sometimes gets the better of me, but either way I still prefer reading.

    Besides I could curl up with anywork by Homer any day of the week.
     
  15. Gigi_GNR
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    Gigi_GNR Guys, come on. WAFFLE-O. Contributor

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    I (like many others, I'm sure) can describe myself better in writing than through just speech at times (not all the time), so I prefer reading because it helps get the point across better than anything else would, really.

    Plus reading is fun!! Bah humbug to anyone who says it's not! ;)
     
  16. RedRaven
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    RedRaven Member

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    It's my safety blanket.
    If I hadn't a vent into a make believe world, I would go crazy in the real one.
     
  17. Eunoia
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    Eunoia New Member Contributor

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    I love escaping and getting lost into a different world. You can get so many meanings from reading, and learn.
     
  18. Gigi_GNR
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    Gigi_GNR Guys, come on. WAFFLE-O. Contributor

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    I definitely agree with that. Reading is an escape, and it's definitely been my escape for years. It helps me to imagine new things and break out of that "in-the-box" mentality. It expands my mind, and that's what I want. :)
     
  19. Laxaria
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    Laxaria New Member

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    I'm definitely not going to be academic about this, but for me, reading anything in general is basically about a process of self-reflection and interaction with the points of thought that the author has brought up.

    Now, A Wizard's First Rule is barely any piece of literature, but it does not detract from some of its inherent meaning. By understanding the faults of humanity in itself, we are able to self-reflect on our own thinking process. I am not saying reading anything would make you more intelligent or more "superior", but rather it leads you on a process of thinking that prompts you to explore things differently.

    I think that's one of the most significant reasons why anyone should ever write anything. To bring up a new perspective, or a new point, especially in the context of the story's setting. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bluest Eye and Houseboy are just some of numerous examples. Gilmen, for example, showcasing the oppression of females in society.

    Each book and story has a little something in it that will inevitably lead us to self-reflection. Personally, it is a matter of whether I am willing to challenge myself to see the different views any one piece of literature, be it academic or recreational.
     

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