Why Do We Talk about Books?

I just had an Aha! moment. You know when you read a book that you really like and you call your best friend to say, "I just have to tell you about this book"? And how when you do tell them about the book, you're usually not satisfied with the result? It doesn't feel like you covered everything. You might have recounted it to them in excruciating detail, you might have described your reaction to every single paragraph, but something's still missing and you end up just saying, "It's so good. You just have to read it to see what I'm talking about." I do this all the time and never really questioned it. But now I stumbled across a passage that explains wonderfully why we feel the need to do this, but also why we always fail and have to send our friends to experience the book on their own:
This entanglement of the reader is, of course, vital to any kind of text, but in the literary text we have the strange situation that the reader cannot know what his participation actually entails. We know that we share in certain experiences, but we do not know what happens to us in the course of this process. This is why, when we have been particularly impressed by a book, we feel the need to talk about it; we do not want to get away from it by talking about it - we simply want to understand more clearly what it is in which we have been entangled. We have undergone an experience, and now we want to know consciously what we have experienced.
You will need a little background here. This is from Wolfgang Iser, whose stuff I'm slowly read at the moment (and it's a much pleasanter activity than I thought it would be). He's trying to describe what happens when you read a piece of good literature and he arrives at the conclusion that you get entangled with it. What does this mean? Well, a successful literary text will first draw you in under the guise of the familiar. You think you have an idea of what's going on in it, of where things are going. (If you don't have any idea at all, engagement with the text might be too difficult for you to even bother. See most readers and Finnegans Wake.) You inevitably form some expectations, some preconceptions based on your background, culture, previous experience etc. And then a good text challenges those expectations. In one way or another, things just don't go exactly as you anticipated. And this happens again and again in the course of your reading, as you form new expectations based on the new stuff the text throws at you. (Which is very good, because if this didn't happen, you'd have a yawn-fest on your hands.)

So what happens when you read a good book is that your preconceptions are continually overtaken, and, as you let go of them, you start to experience the text itself. The book becomes your present. You don't just read it, you become entangled with it and changed by it. That is the magic of good literature and it does make sense that you would want to understand it by capturing it in words. It makes sense you would want to share it. But it also makes sense that you'd fail at this task. You can't really capture the sense of living in the present of a book. If you're very good, you can give someone a wonderful representation of what it was like to experience a book, you can explain what elements in the book allowed for this experience, but you can't give them the experience itself. That's why you end up sending them to the book instead.

But another interesting corollary of this is that you can't really have access to that experience either. You can remember what it was like to read a text, but you can't read it again and have the same experience. Just the fact that you now know how it ends will change the way you read it, will change your preconceptions and expectations. (The text can still surprise you, though.) So I guess that, if we accept all this, no man (or woman) ever reads the same book twice.


21 comments:

  1. Love this explanation! I try to explain George Orwell "Shooting an Elephant" to friends and family all the time. But they just don't get it. But that was a story that really resonated in me. xo

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    1. *adds Shooting an Elephant to reading list*

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  2. This was a great post - thanks for sharing! I'll definitely be reading up on Wolfgang Iser.

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    1. Glad you liked it! This fragment was from an anthology, but I'm reading The Act of Reading by Iser and it's pretty accessible even if you don't have a strong literary theory background (which I don't).

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  3. "This is why, when we have been particularly impressed by a book, we feel the need to talk about it; we do not want to get away from it by talking about it - we simply want to understand more clearly what it is in which we have been entangled. We have undergone an experience, and now we want to know consciously what we have experienced."
    Oh I like this. To consciously know what we have experienced. Yes! I find myself spoiling books for my poor husband all the time as I try to share what exactly it is that I am so lost in. I definitely talk about it so that I can understand the experience. And that conversation is so unsatisfactory with someone who hasn't also read the book and so fruitful with someone who has. I think partly because they have experienced the same book and yet they have necessarily had a different experience. Seeing both the similarities but even more so the differences helps me to understand my own experience. I can see where I have been naive, what I have missed. I can catch glimpses of meaning that previously eluded me. But also I see the experience itself more clearly.

    And I love the word "entanglement" to describe that experience.

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    1. Oh yes, I didn't think about that, but it is illuminating to see what other people thought of a book you liked. Thanks for bringing it up, Melanie! I think this also applies to reading reviews or criticism. In fact, Iser goes on to say that one of the critic's jobs could be just this - to help bring your experience into clear focus.

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    2. I agree with Iser about that as one of the critic's jobs. Personally, I hate critics who are so interested in applying their pet theory to a work instead of helping you to see the work more clearly. It's my biggest beef with things like postcolonial criticism or feminist criticism, they don't help to focus experience but rather seem to imply that the reader's experience doesn't really matter to them.

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  4. Entangled, yes! Thanks for that insight, Claudia! That is just so perfect! I relate to it emotionally, more than intellectually (having a rather shallow intellect). As an avid reader, the world I enter between the covers of a well-loved book becomes a part of my reality. Sometimes that feeling of connection stays long after the book is finished. Sometimes it never goes away.

    The last book I read that so affected me was Cutting for Stone. Individual perceptions of that book vary, sometimes greatly. Case in point: I gave my a husband a copy of it, and then listened to him grump about the gruesomely detailed medical descriptions (get a grip, Doctor!). I noted with satisfaction that he finished the book with a box of Kleenex at his side. Yet, he did not experience the need to go back and re-read the beginning after the surprising revelation at the end, as I did. He was not entangled, I was. It was disappointing.

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    1. Iris, Are you saying he wasn't entangled because he didn't go back to re-read the beginning or because of his overall reaction to the book? It seems to me there could be degrees of entanglement and that different people might express similar experiences in different ways.

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    2. Good point, Melanie. (Love your avatar) He was just happy to finish it. He didn’t find it to be as thoroughly captivating as I did. Maybe he was entangled, but I think he fought his way out with a machete! Re-reading from the beginning was just an example of how I felt bound to this story.

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    3. "I noted with satisfaction that he finished the book with a box of Kleenex at his side."

      Awww. I was just typing this as you replied, so you already answered the rest of my comment, but I'm going to keep it anyway because I came up with an analogy I like :D

      So I agree with Melanie that entanglement happens at some level with every text, but the intensity of the experience might vary. I think a very good analogy is with pop-up or movable books. For a theory like this, it's like every book is a movable book. It needs the reader's input; it needs interaction. It's simply not complete if there is no reader to play with it. And conversely, a reader can't experience such a book passively. They need to put something into it themselves. So that's enough for you to have basic entanglement. But how smoothly a reader pulls the tabs, whether they catch all of the intricacies, whether they are absorbed by the book and keep playing obsessively with it (*cough* not that I ever did that, with real or pop-up books *cough*), that depends on the reader.

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  5. Thanks, Iris, It's a picture of my with my son when he was a baby. I love the image of him fighting his way out with a machete. I've felt that way about a book before for sure. And it's always painful when someone you love just doesn't feel the same way about a book that grabbed you so thoroughly. That's happened with me and my husband before.

    Claudia, I like the pop up book analogy.

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  6. Hmm, I agree we get entangled in the work, but why would it follow that we then feel the need to talk about it? I talk about books with people who enjoy books, and like to talk about them as well. It's a common interest. It's no different than my enjoying to talk about baseball with friends who have the same common interest. I couldn't say I'm compelled to talk about either because I'm entangled. Talking to people is a human activity. If we have common intersts we talk. ;)

    I don't mean to rain on the parade. I'm not typically a sour puss. I did enjoy reading the blog.

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    1. Hi, Manny, thanks for commenting. I think there are two questions here.

      1. Are your position and Iser's (and mine) mutually exclusive?

      So Iser's is saying that when we talk about a book that we liked we are trying to make sense of what we experienced, to recapture in words what we lived through. You are saying that we are not doing it for that reason, but because we are social animals and like to discuss our common interests. I don't think these two positions are mutually exclusive.

      Yes, we talk to our friends about stuff we think they'll enjoy because we are social animals. But, beyond this, there are reasons why you are moved to talk about certain things and not about others (even within the field of common interests). Wanting to make sense of an experience can be this type of secondary reason. When you talk about something you were part of, you are in a way making sense of it. You are transforming something you lived in a narrative that others can follow and understand. And, more importantly, because that experience can never return for you, you are revisiting it as well by thinking about it. I think large part of the pleasure of recounting your experiences is this idea of "reliving." What Iser wants is to include books in this category as well. He wants to claim that we experience books, we don't just contemplate them as outsiders.

      2. Is social instinct the primary drive here?

      So I think you have a point in that there can be more than one reason to talk about books (or anything else). I think that perhaps Iser is over-simplifying a little, but not by much. It made sense for me, because in that fragment he focuses on that feeling of "I must talk about it" that you get even while reading a very gripping book (and not on specific reasons you might have to discuss this particular book with your friends - for example, finding details in it that you know would amuse them). In my experience, I do get that feeling even when I don't have any friends that share my interest in, say, a particular genre. I get it even when there's absolutely no one to talk to. If there's no one around I will write about that book or, yes, talk to myself (it happens). So to me it seems plausible that the driving force in this particular situation is not the need to socialize per se, but the need to put an experience in discursive terms. It's a way of continuing to interact with the book. For me at least, sharing comes second, after the need to put some order into my own thoughts.

      I hope this makes sense. Experiences vary, so this might not resonate with you. Which is okay, because this was more in the realm of plausible stories than established fact to begin with :)

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    2. Hi Claudia

      1. Are your position and Iser's (and mine) mutually exclusive?

      No, I don't think they are exclusive, but it doesn't seem to explain the phenomena. Given that people feel compelled to talk about lots of things with their friends, I don't see why reading a book is any different than any other activity between people of common interests.

      2. Is social instinct the primary drive here?

      I think so. Yes experiences vary. But you see i love literature and I love talking about it. So I'm naturally sympathetic to your argument. However, as I step back, I can't honestly say it's any different than any other passionate recreation.

      Why do i discuss literature?

      (1) I love literature, especially literature as high art. High art lit is complicated and gathering other people's perspectives helps illuminate what I just read.

      (2) It's a form of bonding with people of like-minded interests.

      (3) It's fun. :)

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  7. I guess I'd assumed it was a universal reaction that finding oneself so absorbed in a book would make it an experience one would want to share with others. In the same way my husband seems to need to tell me about a baseball game he watched when there is no one else to talk about it with. I suppose it doesn't necessarily follow for everyone. Obviously not in your case, since you seem puzzled by the idea. However, for me there is something about certain books that is compelling and it does seem that the more engaging a book, the more entangled I feel, the more I want to find someone to discuss it with. And it has been my experience that my friends and acquaintances who like to read seem to feel the same way.

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    1. Ah Melanie, you enjoy bonding with people of similar interests. ;) Is it the bonding or the compulsion?

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  8. I am popping in a little late (through the link from Melanie B's blog) to say that this is a great post. I have had this experience so many times...

    Sometimes, a thing happens to you that you just want to keep processing, you know? You find yourself wanting to tell the story over and over, and it's never clear whether it's because you need to have it *heard* or because you need to hear yourself say it. Like the births of my children -- I always wanted to tell people about labor and delivery -- talk about an experience of being entangled! -- and I have heard people say that they wanted to tell and tell and tell tragic stories in their lives like the unexpected loss of a loved one. There is also the phenomenon of the "funny story" -- when something truly amusing happens to you, you want to go and tell the story again and again (and so much the better each time it improves on the telling) -- you want to weave the tale in such a way as to effectively deliver the event that serves as the "punch line," make your listeners laugh the way the situation made you laugh. You want to recreate a meaningful experience for other people.

    (I really think the "tell the funny story" is the closest match here.)

    Anyway, sometimes a book comes along that is, itself, an experience of the same quality.

    I think you should start a separate thread for people to recommend books that created this experience for them :-)

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    1. Oh yes, that's a very good description of what's going on, I think. Thank you for commenting! It's a good idea to have a thread with books that impressed people this way. I'll try to put a post up next week :)

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