Reading Fiction: The Pursuit of a Peculiar Pleasure
- 2010 27 May
The Roman poet Horace, perhaps 20 years before Christ was born, described the purpose of literature with the phrase "utile et dulci." Which, loosely translated, means "to please and instruct."
Through the centuries, a similar thought has occurred to several respected writers. Percy Shelley, for one, spoke of poetry as "a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight." More recently, Robert Frost stated, "A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom."
Novels, like poetry, are written to please. Writers take the raw materials at hand: words, irony, cadence and rhythm, simile and metaphor—and with them create something new and, they hope, as they tweak, rewrite, and restructure their 10th, 15th, and 20th drafts—something beautiful. Readers may become involved in plot; they inevitably come to love and hate a story's characters, but the final product, the bound book they hold in their hands is, as Frost said of poetry, "a performance in words."
We relish the performance. We choose novels for their seductive power. We eagerly become engrossed in stories because we are, writer Simon Lesser says, indefatigable seekers of pleasure. There's no denying that Harold Bloom, the distinguished literary critic, is right when he says that the strongest motive for deep reading is the search for a difficult pleasure.
Consider the when, where, and why of reading fiction. We read novels when we want to relax. We read in recliners, not desk chairs. We read in the den, cozy before the fire. We read in bed, or on the deck with our feet propped on a stool. We pack good books for the beach, lake, or mountains.
Pleasure that Inspires and Affirms
In his essay "'Words of Delight': A Hedonistic Defense of Literature," Wheaton College professor Leland Ryken describes specific kinds of pleasure that come from reading fiction. He talks about intellectual pleasure, about how, in the lives of fictional characters, we see themes, ideas, and values. They stir our minds. The action and dialog provoke deeper thought, which leads to new ideas, which are—in the minds of inspired readers—a catalyst to the imagination. And it's all great fun.
It is especially enjoyable, Ryken says, when we stumble across characters who think and feel like we do. We're affirmed. It's as if we're declared right. And what's more than that: we're given a glimpse, through the lives of the story's characters, of how our thoughts—when acted out—might play in the real world around us.
The celebrated detective novelist Dorothy Sayers, in her essay "Toward a Christian Aesthetic," describes the same resonate pleasure. "It is as though a light were turned on inside us," she says. "We say: ‘Ah! I recongise that! That is something which I obscurely felt to be going on in and about me, but I…couldn't express it.'" The novelist, Sayers says, has taken the thought and "imaged it forth—for me." Readers, then, by way of the writer's art, can take possession of the thought, and turn it to knowledge.
A third kind of pleasure, according to Ryken, is "seeing human experience accurately embodied." Fiction may be a means of escape, but it is, one writer has said, an escape into reality. Realistic fiction is often a mirror, reflecting a world, society, or even a neighborhood we know. Other times, Henry Ward Beecher noted, "Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A home without books," Beecher used to say, "is like a room without windows."
Stories and characters, along with the morals and themes of good fiction give voice to our own views. They're therapeutic. Seeing them on the printed page affirms our thoughts and validates our experiences. Ryken quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said that all people stand in need of expression, and yet, he concluded, "adequate expression is rare." Novelists, Ryken tells us, provide the whole of the human race with expression.
An Escape of the Healthiest Kind
Most avid readers would confess, at least to themselves, that there's a less benighted but equally enjoyable reason to curl up with a good book. Author Sven Birkerts describes it as a peculiar state—a condition, really—that can only be induced by a mesmerizing story. This condition—Birkerts calls it the "reading state"—transcends the story's setting, characters, and plot. It is different, he insists, from sleeping; different from being high or daydreaming.
Birkerts has watched kindred souls in the bookstore. They stand before the shelves, he says, chins at an angle, not looking for a specific book, but one "they can trust to do the job." These readers care about plot and character, but what they really want, Birkerts reveals, is that book—that special story—that will carry them into a state that only a novel can summon.
Birkerts speaks for brigades of like-minded readers when he says, "In this condition, when all is clear and right…I feel a connectedness that cannot be duplicated." The reading state, he says, brings an internal limberness, a sense of being "in accord with time," as if the whole of life were somehow, for as long as one dwells in "the state," available "as an object of contemplation."
This is, to be sure, pure escape. But it's escape of the healthiest, most productive kind. Through fiction's lens readers view their lives from a new and unique perspective. With stories, Birkerts claims that he repositions his life along "the coordinate axes of urgency and purpose." These two qualities, he says, inform the actions of fictional characters. And by doing so they push, nudge, and prod readers for as long as they're "bathed in the energies of the book."
Readers often find that the details of a story, even a good one, soon fade. But, like William Hazlitt, the 17th century critic, they remember "…the place where I sat to read the volume, the day when I got it, the feeling of the air, the fields, the sky—those places, those times, those persons, and those feelings."
It is Sven Birkerts says, as if the book were a ladder, to be climbed and then discarded after it has served its purpose. Which is, in part, to provide a lofty and intricate pleasure.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine. He's also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (2008) and Crossing the Lines (2009), both published by David C. Cook Publishers.
**This article first published on May 27, 2010.