I love reading. This fact is apparent to anyone who knows me in real life (you have inevitably interrupted me in the middle of a book) or through this blog, because it’s about books and you’re reading this post right now. Obviously. Unless of course you stopped after the first sentence, in which case you wouldn’t even know that I’m talking about you right now and this diversion is inconsequential.
Regardless of which category you are in, you probably know by now that me and my fellow Bibliomantics love (emphasis on the italics) reading. We spend our days stuck at work, class, driving, showering, being forced to watch James Cameron movies, all the while wishing we were reading instead.
One of the reasons I love to read, which I will delve into in this post, is the act of reading itself, and the differing experiences that come with it. I will try my best not to make the following read like a poorly pieced together college English paper, but I’m not making any promises!
Literature is amazing because it can be read in many varying ways either by the same reader, or by several different readers. It can have different meanings for a person at various points in their life (i.e. a person reading a book later on in life may have new connections to the source material as they gain new experiences/learn new things); or, two people reading they same material may view it in decidedly distinct ways.
My sophomore year at Rutgers (yes, that school that just paid Snooki $32,000 to come give their students an even poorer image of their university), we read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Diaz, a Rutgers alum came to speak at the university about his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, and he blew me away. He was funny, he was approachable, and he introduced an idea that had never occurred to me: stories are read by everyone differently. During the question and answer session someone asked him if he thought the frequent use of Spanish throughout the narrative in Oscar Wao might be off-putting to English speakers. He replied by saying that literature has many different languages, and it would be impossible to understand them all. In much the same way that his references to Lord of the Rings, Wolverine, or “Doctor Who” wouldn’t be understood by every reader, neither would Spanish. It’s just the nature of the beast that is literature. And the nature of the beast that is “Mystery Science Theater 3000”.
This opened up a whole new way in which I view literature. It is the vanity of humanity that probably blocked me from previously picking up on this concept. I didn’t even consider that my experience could be different from someone else’s experience. I knew that people had their own tastes and that some things would be more enjoyable than others for various reasons, but the idea of experiences shaping our view of literature never registered for me.
To fully sum up my realization: I was taking my understanding of “Monty Python” references in literature for granted.
Despite the fact that I mentioned choose your own adventure books in my previous Goosebumps themed post, I feel I must mention them again. In the most ridiculous analogy I can come up with, a novel is a different adventure for each reader. An eight year old will not recognize the masturbation joke in Harry Potter that I picked up on when I reread the same book ten years later, nor will one person end up with the same ending in a choose your own adventure novel (although most people will inevitably die).
I started to explore this theory/metaphor/excuse to read a Give Yourself Goosebumps book by making a chart of the possible outcomes in R.L. Stine’s Escape from the Carnival of Horrors. After an hour or so of making a flow chart and reading through all the options, I discovered there were 25 possible endings in this book alone, dictated by the choice of the reader. All in all, only three outcomes resulted in happy endings, eight in unhappy endings brought on by death, and fourteen in the eternal punishment or entrapment of the character (i.e. being stuck on a trampoline for all eternity). This character is of course “you” since these books are written in the very little used second person.
Decisions in this book were brought upon by simple things such as choosing to go right or left in a secret passage, or by the preference of the reader (i.e. do you want to go to the haunted house or explore the midway?). Ultimately, the preference of the reader affects the course of the narrative in much the same way that less interactive novels are understood by the experiences of those same participants.
That is of course not to say that you will be sent to Mars, attacked by a swamp monster, stuck on the Doom Slide for all eternity, or turned into a chicken depending on the way you experience literature, but you get the basic gist.
Some readers don’t like certain genres, certain character archetypes, and certain predictable plots. Some people read for escape, some for fun, some to learn, and even though it pains me to say it, some people don’t even read at all. But the fact that I can read a book and experience something completely different from another person is just one reason why I love reading.