Monday 31 October 2011

Why Do We Read Literature?

The question of why people read literature continues to perplex. The usual assumption is that people read for pleasure and, of course, reading is pleasurable. But does this mean it's like eating chocolate? That doesn't seem quite the right idea.

Don Kuiken (2008) has proposed that the deeper kind of reading is expressive. He means that reading literary texts enables us to understand in ways that are not afforded by non-literary texts. In expressive reading we can focus on our emotions, as we express them mentally: reflect on them, clarify them, understand them more deeply, and reconfigure them within an altered understanding of our own and others' lives. As Kuiken puts it, reading of this kind: "requires articulation of how feeling expression unfolds over time, has the character of disclosure, and simultaneously brings feelings and their intentional objects to presence" (p. 49).

In a recently published article, Shelley Sikora, Don Kuiken and David Miall (2011) have studied, very fruitfully, how people read Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The rime of the ancient mariner," to see whether and how people might read expressively.

Thirty women and eleven men were asked to read "The ancient mariner" at home, then read it a second time and mark five passages they found particularly striking or evocative, then describe, using an audio recorder, their experience of each one of these passages in turn, in as much detail as possible. The researchers looked for distinct expressions of personal meaning and identified what kind of meaning these were. Here's an example: "It reminds me of times when I felt despair and end up with nothing good in my life." Each such meaning was called a constituent, in this instance labelled: "Reminded of a generic autobiographical event." All 196 commentaries were analyzed in terms of whether or not they contained each of 48 such constituents.

Using the statistical procedure of cluster analysis, Sikora, Kuiken and Miall found six clusters of response. The one in which they were particularly interested, which they identified as indicating expressive reading, involved (a) metaphoric and quasi-metaphoric engagement with sensory imagery from the poem, or (b) progressive transformation of an emergent affective theme, or (c) metaphoric blurring of boundaries between the reader’s and narrator’s perspectives. Constituents in this cluster were found to occur in reading Coleridge's poem, and they contrasted with constituents in the other five clusters found in propels responses, which were: allegorical connection for instance a thought about how the killing the albatross referred to the biblical idea of "the fall," aesthetic feeling in which a reader noted sensory imagery in the poem, autobiographical assimilation in which the reader connected an event in the poem to an event in his or her own life, autobiographical diversion in which a reader took off on a piece of autobiography that had nothing much to do with the poem, and non-engagement which was the absence of any of the other modes but was about something rather different from the poem. Participants who were English majors offered examples of expressive reading more often than did people who were not English majors.

Here are lines 446 to 451 of the poem:
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread ...
And here is part of commentary to these lines (marked by a reader as evocative):
Knowing that there’s nothing you can do about it, keeping on walking and pretending it’s not happening, just because there’s no other way to cope with it, you can’t run from it. All you can do is hope that somehow or other it magically just disappears and leaves you alone (p. 264).
As Sikora et al. point out, in this example of expressive reading, the poem's narrator and the reader seem almost to have merged, as if Coleridge had been able to articulate in words a feeling that the reader has had, and struggled with and was then, as a result of reading, able to depict in this response.

Sikora et al.'s paper is an important one. It puts into words what many of us feel about literary reading, that in a deep way it can be about an articulation of what we feel which, without the literary text, we may not previously have been able consciously to recognize. Making-of-meaning is something we do all the time in life, but literary reading can augment it, and enable us make sense of aspects of our experience that were previously insubstantial or insensate.

In the participant's commentary on "The ancient mariner" passage (above) about walking in fear and dread, the reader constructs and offers his or her own words. It's in this way that the expressive, enacted, reading takes place. I used to think, as a novelist, that my job as author was to contribute 50% of a piece of fiction and the reader would contribute the other 50%. I now think that the writer contributes 30% and the reader 70%.

Kuiken, D. (2008). A theory of expressive reading. In S. Zyngier, M. Bortolussi, A. Chesnokova & J. Auracher (Eds.), Directions in empirical literary studies: In honor of Willie van Peer (pp. 49-68). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Sikora, S., Kuiken, D., & Miall, D. S. (2011). Expressive reading. A phenomenological study of readers' experience of Coleridge's The rime of he ancient mariner. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5, 258-268.

Image: Statue of the Ancient Mariner, Watchet, Somerset; Wikipedia. (It was in and around the little harbour town of Watchet that Coleridge wrote "The rime of the ancient mariner." I visited there last year, and found this statue to be surprisingly moving.)

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for that very interesting article. Did the participants read the entire poem or just some parts of it?

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much for this comment; I am glad you found the post interesting. Yes: the participants read the entire poem, "Rime of the ancient mariner" at home, then read it a second time and marked the places where they found the poem striking or evocative.

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