This is the time of year when people often come up with, or at least convincingly commit to, projects that they want to accomplish during the coming year. Reading projects are a popular one, and the creativity with which readers impose boundaries on their reading is interesting, sometimes amusing, and, especially in the case of fiction-reading projects, very much in need of explanation.
It makes sense that one would plan to read, for example, all serious works published in the last five years on Alexander the Great. It makes sense to plan to read all available works published in late 1929 on the economy and the financial markets. In both cases, the reader is likely trying to get at the facts of what happened or to the subtleties of how those events have been interpreted. But what are we doing when we say that we intend to read every short story that The New Yorker will publish in 2013? or read all French novels in our local library by authors with a last name beginning with T, U, V, W, X, Y or Z? or read all the translations of Anna Karenina in any language in which we can read? or read all of the books nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the 11 years when the jury eventually opted not to award the prize (like 2012)? It would be difficult, for example, to reconcile many readers’ way of thinking of books as friends (or perhaps the recording of the thoughts, feelings, and memories of virtual friends) with a project of this sort. Would we ever consider limiting ourselves to speaking, for a period of one month, only to friends whose first name begins with P? or who have played an instrument for at least ten years? or who wear red quite often? Ridiculous.
What do fiction reading projects get us, then? One could argue that people planning such projects are more interested in analyzing fiction than reading primarily in order to engage in vicarious emotional experiences. Following this argument, readers are reading with a sort of non-fiction mindset: what facts about the world can I glean, what facts about a particular historical time period can I acquire, how does this incredibly successful writer structure her work, and what can I learn from her to use in my own work of fiction? These are all legitimate reasons to plan such a project, it seems to me.
But, if you believe that the point of reading fiction is to find stories that engage us in simulation processes that we find emotionally and intellectually stimulating and enjoyable, how could a selection rule of any sort provide the right kinds of fiction? Here is a conjecture. These projects are quite rational in a world in which a reader does not have infinite time to read an infinite number of texts. The fiction-reading project serves two very important functions. It allows the reader to avoid choices that would be made according to whim, friendly coercion by others, or by recent-exposure, salience, or convenience effects, among others. As importantly, if adhered to closely (that is, if the reader doesn’t stop reading a work after only a page or two, but gives it a fair try before abandonment), the project entails exposure to works that the reader eventually finds to be satisfying but that she might never have predicted to be such from all available data, such as author information, a boring cover, sales volumes, friends’ and commentators’ assessments, and the like. Such a reading project expands the sample size of works to be read using some data from the reader, namely, the rule she has come up with, but in all respects not pertaining to the rule itself, it frees her from her own reading-preference prejudices. In so doing, the fiction-reading project is guaranteed to expose readers to ideas, perspectives, memories, and thoughts beyond the thematic zones of those occasioned by individually selected works.
It would be interesting to learn about our readers’ fiction-reading projects. Have you ever put a constraint on your fiction reading? What selection rule did you choose? Did it work out? Was it fun, annoying, enriching, boring? Leave a comment letting us know what your experience was like, and happy reading in 2013!