Monday 31 December 2012

Fiction-Reading Projects: Unexpectedly Rational

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!

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Clare Dudman said...

In order to learn about different cultures I sometimes restrict my fiction choice to modern literature from that country. I think it gives insight into a new viewpoint, and also a different way of telling stories. I find it enriches my reading when I return to reading work from my native country.

Becca said...

I'm new to your site, but I enjoy it, so I'm just going to jump right in and leave a comment...

I used to make fiction-reading projects all the time. Once, I tried to read as many Newberry winners as I could, since middle grade fiction is what I want to write. It was enriching, in that I noticed how the preferences of the Newberry powers-that-be changed over time; how different literary styles and values came in and out of appreciation.

Another project I made for financial reasons was to not purchase any new books from the calendar year; I had to read what I could find on my bookshelf or in my local library. This really surprised me--just getting books from the library opened up my realm of reading interests. I checked out cookbooks, knitting pattern books, and other genres of fiction I'd not dabbled in before. It was fun! I think the only new book I read from my own shelves was For Whom the Bell Tolls, which did not disappoint.

Fabio said...

Georges Perec once wrote a three-hundred page novel, La Disparition, without once using the letter "e", the most common in the French language (a type of constrained writing called "lipogram"). Now there's an interesting imposition of a boundary, n'est-ce pas? Espousing seemingly tortuous, roundabout reasoning, he explained that these self-imposed limits upon his own writing allowed him to... free himself! The heart of his argument was this: a boundary is an instrument of creative liberation.

Perhaps, then, this may help explain the constraints we impose on ourselves as readers: there are just too many reading possibilities out there -- it's like participating in a game with no rules. And what fun is there in a game like that? No child would engage. And no adult would either, probably.

I once constrained myself in this fashion: I decided to read only books with titles containing the word "intimacy". I thus serendipitously came to know an author I had up until then not read: Hanif Kureishi. It was a riveting book, and I reveled in the manner I discovered it. I applied the same constraint to music and discovered a great album by the Brazilian singer ZĂ©lia Duncan ("Intimidade"). The experience afforded me, you could say, some intimate reading and listening. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Unknown said...

I went thru a Murakami stage last year. I read about 10 books in a row. Then I went thru a grieving process when I ran out of books.
Sometimes I'm in a trashy novel mood and read tons of them. They they sicken me and I move on.
I might be exploring a topic like Parallel universes and read fiction and non fiction.
Then there is my books about death list. Always looking for an interesting book of fiction on death and afterlife. I want to stress: FICTION. Don't actually believe any of it but enjoy how writers address the issue. That's an ongoing project.

Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

Thank you very much, Clare Dudman, Becca, Fabio, and iffy, for sharing your reading-project experiences. I’ve been reflecting on them this week.

I strongly suspect that Clare Dudman’s idea of reading by country would make us more empathetic toward others, and perhaps less judgmental of other cultural practices, when we travel to countries besides our own. Perhaps it would even be more helpful to travelers, and especially long-stay travelers, to unfamiliar places not to read tourists’ guides but to read a novel or two written by contemporary novelists of the region. Whatever information one may have gathered would have been acquired through feeling with the characters and could meaningfully contextualize the experiences abroad.

Becca mentions detecting the preference trends over time among the Newbery committees, and no doubt the same is true of the Man Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel and others. It's fascinating what you cannot see about a particular group of works until you have read them one after another, and those trends would be undetectable without such a reading project. Those trends might shed light on a number of sociological and social historical questions, too. I would be curious to know what it was like going back to reading books for the Newbery age group which had not won awards, after having been steeped in the best of the best for a while. One would be in a privileged position, I think, to comment on what excellence in literature means.

Perec’s notion of boundary as an initiator of creative liberation discussed by Fabio makes a lot of sense to me. Could it be that liberation through a reading project comes about not only from the by-necessity (because we can’t read everything) somewhat narrow slice of the world one experiences in reading individually selected books but also from the over-arching, and perhaps overbearing, self behind the individual selections? What if we were to compare the first five books read according to our selection rule, no matter what the rule, with the last five works of fiction read before imposing the rule? Would we discover something about our own likes, dislikes, biases, blind spots, prejudices, preferences, or anything at all about ourselves through the comparison that we hadn’t seen before?

In the original post, I focused on the rule-selected works themselves, and their effects on the reader. Each commentator very much enriches the discussion here by sharing not only responses to individual works that happened to get selected by the rule, but feelings and thoughts occasioned by the process itself. It seems that most of these experiences were quite positive: a sense of having fun, pleasant surprise at discoveries and at the project’s success, enjoyment. But as iffy points out, a sense of loss may be in store at project’s end, especially if the project has involved the reading of one author’s works. I have never read ten books in a row by one author, but I have felt a sense of loss after having finished an extremely engaging novel or one that spoke to me in ways I had never anticipated. The let down, even if the reader knows it’s coming, can be profound, and much more so, I would think, if each of those works has originated in one extraordinary writer.

It could be that there’s a sense of loss waiting at the end of any reading project. Or it could be that the purpose for imposing the rule on reading in the first place plays an important role in our experience of the reading and its termination. After the premature death of her oldest sister, Nina Sankovitch turned to a reading project to help her through her grieving. Every day from October 2008 to October 2009 she read a book, wrote a personal response to it, and posted it on her website ( These books, she later wrote, gave her “Company in my sorrow, release from my guilt, encouragement in remembering the past, and lessons on how to live in my future, moving forward with hope and joy and anticipation.” Healing, even – that grew from a reading project.

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