Are academic readers bad readers?

by Clementine

Does being trained in literary criticism pollute our reading experience? That’s a question I often ask myself. A related, and no less fascinating one, is – does being trained in literary criticism pollute our writing experience? But for this blog post I will explore only the former (my answer to the latter, if you’re interested, being a definite yes it is hellish).

My answer is dual. Because I am trained in literary criticism, and because I can’t make that obnoxious part of my brain shut up when I pick up a book for fun, the result is that:
– I am a harsher reader of good fiction [Fig 1]
– I am a kinder reader of bad fiction [Fig 2]

It is never enough to dislike a book – you have to wonder why. And wondering about it makes it interesting. What does this badness say about the world? About literature and readers? Books you dislike are so interestingly bad.

And try as you may, any book you love will be dissected by that part of your brain that is a little bit too keen to exhibit splendid critical skills. And then the labels will creep in. Conservative, manipulative, Manichean – how can you possibly like this book?

Academic readers are rarely charmed.

But of course that’s not to say that losing one’s readerly virginity is a bad thing. A critical reading is not a bad reading – it is The Reading, the constructive one, the one that looks for meaning inside and outside the book, and creates and defines the very concept of reading.

I do feel I have lost a lot of immediacy in my relationship to books. The only books I can enjoy more or less fully and naively are detective novels, science-fiction, a bit of poetry, books in genres I know nothing about. Sometimes, miraculously, I find in some adult or children’s book a short moment of pure, untainted enchantment.

But even if my pre-critical innocence could be regained, I know I would never swap it back for what I have now.

Would you?

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4 comments

  1. This seems to be a version of the nostalgia for an innocence we never actually had, prior to whatever we think we are now. Well, I, at least, never had it, was always already engaged in thinking about the texts I read or heard (Why was Jack wearing a crown while fetching a pail of water? Weird.). My responses grew more sophisticated and more theoretically informed as I grew up, but no more involved in an awareness of the text as a text, with interesting or uninteresting words, an interesting or uninteresting ability to evoke places and people and smells and all. Indeed, I think my main pleasure in reading poems and novels has always been a pleasurable awareness of how their being texts adds to their interest. My enchantment is and I think always has been, about the magical ability of words (and pictures) to evoke what isn't actually there without ever actually making it be there. I wonder how many other people never actually experienced the pre-critical reading they believe they've now lost anywhere outside of their illusory nostalgia.

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  2. Maybe… but I do feel critically more 'innocent' – more immediately receptive maybe – when listening to a concerto or watching a film noir because I don't know anything about the critical discourse around these media.

    I often wonder how much I'd have liked Harry Potter if I'd first read it last year, as opposed to when I was 10 and didn't know the words 'class' and 'gender'.

    But yes. Why was he wearing a crown.

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  3. I think, as i've learned since, that it was actually the crown of his head–i.e., the top of it, with or without a gold thingie on top of it. Which I guess goes to prove that it was actually more fun when I was innocent and didn't know there was more than one kind of crown.

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