Of Reading

Do you remember the first time you read The Two Towers? Did you throw the book away near the end, bitter, betrayed when that demon Tolkien seems to have killed Frodo? I remember I was outraged. Having read all that way for him to do this? It was a treasonous way to write. He had led me to believe the thing would end otherwise, and if the ending did not involve Frodo, I didn’t want it.*

But then I read on, and checked ahead, and saw he hadn’t died, and so resumed.

I knew it couldn’t end that way. It had to end better or it would have been a terrible book. Which is curious, if you think about it. After all, how do we know?

I think we know because there are certain expectations an author raises: expectations he must satisfy. You enjoy the end because he has created and nurtured a desire for it. When we assume what we do about Frodo at the end of The Two Towers, we get upset because we think we are not getting whatever it is we felt he was working toward.

I think that is how literature works: it nurtures a desire, awakens and stirs and nourishes desire. Then if it is a good book (in terms of artistry) it satisfies the desire. It creates an expectation that it meets.

And I think that is how we must judge these things: being aware of the desires encouraged in us. But there are then two things to be aware of: not only how well it satisfies the desire it has stirred up, but also what desires it stirs up. There are desires Christians have to put to death and not encourage.

But I do think this is the main question for evaluating imaginative writing. How does it operate on your heart? What desires does it nurture, strengthen, draw from you and then by satisfying, endorse?

*I do think it goes to show how shallow is the modern silliness about spoilers. It isn’t what, but how that matters in a story. We don’t read The Lord of the Rings in order to find out if Sauron will or will not win. We will hate the book if he does. We don’t read Harry Potter wondering if Voldemort will come out triumphant. He can’t, or it won’t be a good book. We read mainly to find out how. That explains also the pleasure of re-reading: we see better the how things come about, knowing perfectly well what will. The satisfaction lies not in what, but how. And that’s in other words the point of the remaining paragraphs above.

4 thoughts on “Of Reading

  1. Interesting. I am not sure if this is related, but I have been doing a lot of listening to audiobooks lately. It is interesting when I happen to listen to the same book read by different readers. Some readers just aren’t anywhere near as good as others. In their hands (or mouth, as it were), a book can become dull and lifeless. But take the same book and listen to a superbly skilled reader and what a difference! Sometimes even good readers can make bad books interesting.

    I wonder if this has something to do with whether a person knows how to read or not. Some people will tell you “I’m not a reader.” Perhaps they just don’t know how, even though they understand something about reading English.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    1. I think being able to hear what you’re reading is important to reading well. It seems to me it requires a higher imaginative interaction of the reader with what the writer has given him. What a person writes is so much more than letters and punctuation, but grasping those other things is an acquired skill.

  2. I don’t think it can be, as much. There’s not so much idiotic frailty about it. It is what goes into the storytelling that makes all the length of storytelling necessary. It’s in the details, in the cumulative understanding of character and motives and circumstances and the whole wide world as it comes to bear on that situation. I think at some point one must be delicate about what one gives away–there is such a thing as a joy of discovery, and even when it comes to the what, I’m overstating my case (but not by a whole lot). But not an effete delicacy caused by having something that is true enough overshadow something that is more important.

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