In the novel IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER, Italo Calvino writes about a woman who is a pure reader. The act of being immersed in a story is the totality of the experience for the pure reader. According to her, “There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other side those that read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends…”. Later in IF ON A WINTER’s NIGHT, Calvino introduces a writer who echoes the pure reader’s sentiment, saying “Since I have become a slave laborer of writing, the pleasure of reading has finished for me.” In Calvino veritas, indeed!
A writer reads to learn how to write. The psychological distance presupposed by the act of analysis is what makes it difficult for a writer to be a pure reader. To be a writer is to inherently dull the ability to read for reading’s sake.
This doesn’t mean that being a pure reader is impossible for writers, just that they’ll have to be reading an incredibly well-written work to get into that zone. Even then, once the afterglow of the read wears off, the writer will be picking through passages to try and understand how it’s possible that a story as seemingly bloated as Joyce’s THE DEAD can deliver such an emotional climax. Works of lesser quality do not even transport the writer; she will observe the story rather than be absorbed by it. The analytical chatterbox in her mind will note every infraction of grammar, characterization, and symbolism. More egregious than badly written books are books where the author makes the decision to include heavy-handed metafiction or some other self-conscious and purposefully precious element. Authors who do that break the sacred contract with the reader by eliminating any chance at the transcendental experience of becoming a pure reader. I’m with Calvino’s pure reader. All we want is to read a novel that “pile[s] stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you.”
We want to be absorbed, subsumed, enraptured.
It has already been two years since my last experience as a pure reader. The book? AFFINITY, by Sarah Waters. I was skeptical at first because I tend to find books written in diary format to be too contrived to enthrall me. However, Waters’s writing is amazing, and AFFINITY had enough supernatural, sexual, and mysterious elements to keep me coming back, despite my initial reluctance. I read the end on a lunch break; I was sitting in the kitchen at work, seething with emotions. Fury. Betrayal. Horror. Stupidity. Shock. Sadness. The sense of having been used. I was gasping for breath and in tears – in the company lunch room. I didn’t care. In fact, because Waters did her job very, very well, I became a pure reader. There is no lunch room or co-workers for the pure reader. There is only the story.
AFFINITY had serious wow-factor. I was awed, and not certain that there was any place left for novels to go, since perfection had already been achieved. Then the writer in me took charge. She decided that what the world needs are more books like AFFINITY. She started the analysis. She sent the pure reader packing.
What about you, when was the last time you experienced being a pure reader? What book did it for you? The holiday vacations are coming up, and I would love, Love, LOVE to have to have a stack of juicy reads!
- All quotes are from the 1981 Harcourt Brace & Company (Harvest Book imprint) edition of IF ON A WINTER’s NIGHT A TRAVELER.
- I cannot take credit for my the phrase ‘In Calvino Veritas;’ that’s all over the web.
I will definity look into these books. As writer/reader I find myself described in your post.
I think you’ll enjoy AFFINITY, I can’t rave about it enough! IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT is also awesome, but in a very different way. Thanks for stopping by!
“I believe in the healing of story. I think it’s good for people to talk it out.”
That’s the first line in Kerry Temple’s (ND, ’74, my class at ND), Editor of Notre Dame Magazine, in his “Let me tell you…” note on the inside cover of Autumn 2011 “Notre Dame Magazine.”
I will send it to you, and you will be amazed at the stories and the stories about the stories. It’s all about writing.
Mighty fine insights, stunning, some hard to take on stories, and first-class writing are headed your way soon.
First-class writing, fine insights, and stunning stories! This sounds amazing! Thank you for thinking of me, and thank you for the opportunity to do a little pure reading!
hmm. I’ll have to see if I can search out that book. It sounds awesome!
My problems with immersion and pure reading are twofold. I’m a writer AND I’m a student. So not only am I looking at how the writing achieves its effect in order to boost my own writing, I’ve been taught techniques and things to look out for in order to do it more effectively.
I think I’m like you in that it doesn’t stop me from getting immersed; it just makes it easier for me to lose immersion. For example, I’ll quite happily become immersed in a book until I find a bit of awkward dialogue or a passage of infodump – something that other readers might glide over. Once the immersion’s lost, however, I find it really hard to get back into a story. And after I’ve finished a story, whether I was immersed or not, I’ll go back and dissect it to work out how and why it worked.
My favourite books are the ones that kept me immersed and afterwards withstood me analysing it. If you’re into epic fantasy I highly recommend Robin Hobb’s Farseer series. It’s a -long- series but by the end of it I’d gone through the complete emotional spectrum, from laughing to yelling to crying (SO MUCH crying). It was great. Otherwise, the most recent completely immersive books I’ve read is Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers. Loved it to an unreasonable level.
I don’t think that analysing things and not being a pure reader is necessarily a bad thing. Or even something that destroys the enjoyment of a good book. If you still remember how Affinity made you feel the first time you read it then it’s done its job. Picking it apart in order to improve your own writing is a separate process that, ideally, shouldn’t be able to affect how the book made you feel.
…It occurs to me that I need to learn how to write shorter comments 🙂
Thanks for telling me about the Farseer series and The Language of Flowers. I will add them to my reading list! I always love to read books other people loved, especially if the other person is also a writer; we’re a discerning bunch!
I agree that analysis doesn’t destroy the enjoyment of a book. It’s just that, for me, the process of analysis prevents me from getting to the metaphysical, meditative, no-self sort of bliss that comes with being swept away by a story. Now that I think about it, I’m a bit of a pure reading junkie, always looking for the next hit.
If the first step is admitting I have a problem, the second must be to score more books…