Anybody catch Tim Parks’ NYRB blog post last week Where I’m Reading From? In the essay he wonders about why people aren’t more interested in the anthropology of reading, who reads what and why. He thinks it would be good for there to be a public website or database or something where those who write about books professionally provide a brief account of “how we came to hold the views we do on books, or at least how we think we came to hold them” in order to throw some light on disagreements about books. Parks then goes on to write his personal contribution.
All this reminds me of W. H. Auden who created a long list of questions he thought critics should answer so that we readers would have some insight into how said critic might have come to have such an opinion. Auden’s questions aren’t all about books, which is good because our opinions about what we read are tied up with how we see, act and understand the world in other ways too. In fact, Auden wanted critics to write about what they thought Eden would be. I answered the questions in case you are curious. Parks is also aware that our judgments about books are built of many things, and while his piece focuses on how he came to read what he does, he looks at how his parents influence his reading choices, what kind of environment they created for him to grow up in, how they nurtured him or not. He even pulls his brother and sister into the mix.
Toward the end of the essay Parks provides a few examples of books he read and how his formative years influenced his response to, and opinion of, them. The point to all of it being, he finally decides, not just information for the reader to be able to judge his opinion, but also for himself. If you are aware of your habits you are better able to recognize your own bias and, if not correct it, at least own up to it.
Of course the Parks essay has gotten me thinking about why I read what I do. Why do I not really care for crime novels or mysteries but science fiction and fantasy are pretty darn awesome? Why do I tend to stay away from straight-up commercial fiction preferring literary fiction instead? Why do I get excited by books that challenge me in some way? And poetry, how the heck did I come to enjoy reading that so much? And what about the large chunk of my reading that is dedicated to nonfiction? What’s that all about? I don’t know how to answer those questions. I have suspicions of course. I’ll have to think about it a bit more and if I come up with anything satisfactory, I’ll share.
What about you? Do you know why you read what you read?