Monday, 28 June 2010

Taking Breaks... ?

Don't get scared. I'm not about to announce a break from my blogging activities or anything extreme like that! No, I've been pondering. And I present my pondering to you in a scattershot approach.

Two of my Twitterpals - @nextread and @niallharrison - have been having a discussion. Niall mentioned the fact that he wanted to read more on Chinese dynasties and matters like that in order to immerse himself fully in the reading experience that is Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Gav asked whether this was necessary to enjoy the book, and Niall said: "Ignoring depths is to do a book a disservice". He indicated that he always seeks to look beyond the immediate and really plumb a book for all those themes and weighty matters that might not be apparent initially. Gav wondered whether he ever reads a book just to enjoy it as is - and I am finally reaching the point of my ponderings.

When reading a book that has some depth, I will critically analyse as I proceed through the novel - but I read some styles of book without any type of analysis. I take breaks from my "work" while reading by cracking open something by Jilly Cooper, or a novel in the urban fantasy canon. I rarely, if ever, look at these types of books in a critical fashion and just enjoy them as is. These are my marshmallow reads, if you will - light and fluffy, full of sugar and delicious, but will never ever satisfy me long-term or fill me up. In comparison, a novel by China Mieville would be the food equivalent of sitting down to a three course meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Both have their place, for sure, but I read one type to take a break from the other.

What I'm interested in finding out from you is: do you take breaks from your critical reading? Or do you feel that every single book deserved the same level of respect and analysis? If you do take breaks, what genres do you enjoy dipping into?


  1. Just to clarify slightly, the point is that it's clear -- explicitly noted in an introductory letter, in my ARC -- that Kay is riffing on Chinese history in Under Heaven, so any serious response to it is going to need to be able to comment on the nature of those riffs, how successful or not they are, what they add or subtract from the story the novel tells. To be honest, in this case it's not even a hidden depth we're talking about, it's something that is obviously central to what the novel is doing.

    There are, as you say, lightweight books that don't ask for this sort of engagement from the reader. I don't read them very often, if ever, but if that's what someone is after, more power to them. My response to Gav was an objection to the idea that anyone would want to read an obviously *not* lightweight book, such as Kay's, in a lightweight way.

  2. Hi Niall - thanks very much for clarifying your position! For what it is worth, I sit somewhere in the middle of you and Gav - and any research that I do will come afterwards i.e. when I read The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman (about Richard III and the War of the Roses), I read it for pure enjoyment first time round THEN went to research the War of the Roses, and then read it a second time bearing this in mind. But I will only do this with books that I have really fallen in love with. I can see Under Heaven being another of those - but my extra-curricular activity will come after rather than before.

  3. I usually read Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror with a critical eye. And I've been doing that for years, that's one of the reason I started a review blog.

    When I want to read more for the entertainment I usually read adventure or crime. I love reading Clive Cussler, his books are pure adventure and I like the pseudo-archeological parts of his books. I also quite enjoy some of the many books that have come after "The DaVinci Code" for much of the same reason.

    Being Norwegian I also enjoy reading quite a bit of Scandinavian crime (Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson , Jo Nesbø, Anne Holt, Knut Faldbakken and the more political-thriller oriented Jan Guillou).

  4. Interesting question...

    If Jilly Cooper is not delivering the light and fluffy read you expected, don't you think about why it didn't work in that particular book? Did she try something different or just miss the target?

    I don't think I could switch off the analytic reading even if I tried. What I do change is the things I look for in a book. I approach a book by, say, R.E. Feist differently than one by Guy Gavriel Kay. This has to do with my personal expectations of the author, previous experience and what the writer tries to do with the book etc. All of which are highly subjective and infinitely debatable of course. Kay is the better writer of these two in my opinion but that does not necessarily mean I will rate his books higher.

    I'm not quite sure I agree with Niall on whether you do Under Heaven a disservice by not delving into Chinese history in preparation. I don't think writers can (and do) expect the same level of knowledge from all readers. If this book was only understandable and enjoyable for a scholar of Tang dynasty China, would that make it a good book? Or a commercially viable one? The brilliance of Under Heaven is that is offers so much that whatever your approach, there is something in that book for you. A book my prompt me to look into its sources and influences of course but doing it the other way around should not be a perquisite to understand and enjoy the book in my mind. Multiple layers are what rereads are for ;)

  5. If we consider a book lighter than others a critique in itself? I mean if we already read similar books and pick another such book for a break from our usual readings we didn't judge that book already?
    I have to say that I need to change my usual readings and it happens quite often. However, since I enjoy the most fantasy, followed closely by horror and SF genres I still keep those changes within the speculative fiction. Still I do read (not so often lately, but I already feel the need for them) crime, historical and contemporary fiction. But I don't consider them "lightweight" readings.
    But let's get back to the point. I know what you are reffering to and I have to say that I do have a few books that I know that will not bring me the same experience as other books and I know that I already judge them without opening its first page. Still, it is very possible for that book to not bring any entertainment to me. It is true that I don't expect much, but I still look for something within that particular book. Therefore I believe that I look critically at every book I read. It might be possible not to be as strict as with other books, but I still look for elements that will make that reading a pleasant experience.

  6. I'm sure Under Heaven is understandable and enjoyable without knowing about Tang China, not least because so far I'm understanding and enjoying it without knowing about Tang China. I'm very conscious that there's that layer to the book, though, and as a reader I can't really understand wanting to ignore it. (And as a reviewer I would find ignoring it a dereliction of duty.)

  7. @Ole - oh, yeah, I went through a proper spate where I read books that came out as a result of The Da Vinci Code. So many of them were god-awful ;-)

    @Val - I love your first paragraph. You are, of course, right! I even analysed The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous by Jilly Cooper on this very blog, saying that it wasn't as good as other stories she had written. And there are some chick lit authors I will read over others, so I've subconsciously analysed them in order to choose which to read. Good point.

    @Mihai - another good point when you say that you are less strict with certain books, yet still critically analyse them. I guess criteria will change book by book as to how you judge them.

  8. @ Niall: You've identified it, didn't you? So why would you ignore it? As long as it is clear (to the reader of the review) that it is not your area of expertise I don't see why it should require digging into history to mention it. I read quite a lot of historically themed fantasy and historical fiction. I don't think I could get half a dozen reviews a year done if I felt inclined to read up extensively on every period covered (that is not to say I never do, sometimes I just can't help myself ;)). If you don't feel competent do discuss it in more detail, put the emphasis of the review somewhere else. There is so much to most books that I usually find myself having to choose what to discuss anyway (if I want to keep the review to a reasonable length).

  9. Because, as I said in my first comment, the history is central to this book in a way that it's not central to other books. Put another way, a review that does not engage with this aspect of Under Heaven is not a useful review, because it's based in an irredeemably partial understanding.

    (All reviews are partial readings, but some are more partial than others...)

  10. That's one way to approach this book I suppose. I didn't see history as quite as central to the story as you do. Keep in mind that Kay chose to set the book in an alternate world. He can choose to diverge from his historical parallel at any point in the story and has done so (quite dramatically) in other books. A good story is more important than historical accuracy no matter how meticulous the research.

  11. i usually read a book for pleasure and only research if i don't understand or the wider subject interests me. If i am reading a piece of fiction i don't want to be made to feel like i 'don't get it' because i haven't researched the surrounding subject fully - i have enough of that in my coursework

  12. LizSara just said exactly what I was going to say :) I have on many an occasion read a book and then gone and read up on some of the things in that book and then read it again and seen things I didn't see before but then, I'm not a book reviewer so am looking at it as purely escapism and enjoyment for me. Tried the book reviewing on Ciao and never felt like I was doing the books justice so now I read the reviews and don't write them :)

  13. I always read for pleasure, but I find that if you know a bit more about the subject in hand, it intensifies the reading experience considerably. I think all books demand some sort of critical reading but it depends on the book. I'm not saying this to lessen the importance or impact of a certain book, just that reading is a subjective activity and people will take what they want from it. Very interesting discussion here!

  14. I tend to just read a book for pleasure. I do think about what works in the book and what doesn't, but that for me is part of the pleasure. That being said, when I was in my first year of University studying English Language and Culture, the analytical and critical approach to reading got so crammed into us that at one point I found I couldn't 'just' read a book anymore. I always kept analysing and looking for themes, patterns etc. Luckily I've learned to turn that off or at least turn it down.

    And yeah, there are definitely books I read to take a break, to empty my mind and just enjoy. Mostly these are speculative fiction as well, books by Mercedes Lackey, Maria V. Snyder or Moira J. Moore. They're light, fun reads and especially Mercedes Lackey can just cheer me up when I'm in a funk. I've read and re-read her work so many times I've lost count lol

    As for researching historical settings, I tend to do that after I read a book and it's piqued my interest on the topic. For example I'm reading a book on Juba II and Kleopatra Selene after reading Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter. In this way I've visited many era's and historical characters, though I tend to gravitate to British history and royal rulers of Europe.
    But I haven't re-read many (if any) of those historical fiction works after the research, so I wouldn't know whether having done the research changes the perception and enjoyment of the book.

  15. I read a little bit of everything with more in the speculative fiction area then others. I love reading but I'm a full time student working on a science degree. I get plenty of heavy reading done for my course work that when I read something else, I read completely for pleasure. I don't want to think too deeply about it.

    For example, Terry Pratchett writes fantasy with a satire element. How they are satire, I can't explain in depth, because I don't read them for that. I read them because they are wonderfully written, fairly light weight, funny books.

    When I want to delve deeply into a book, I tend to read nonfiction. If something interests me, I look it up after I finish the book (anyone ever get trapped in the wikipedia hole?).

    I guess part of my thing is that I read for entertainment and relaxation. I don't have the inclination to delve into the depths of every book I read...probably why I've failed so far at reading Mieville.

  16. If you are not familiar with a historical period, "cramming" about it when reading a novel is useless imho; I happen not to be that knowledgeable on Chinese history as say on Greek/Roman/Byzantine one, but I read some Chinese classics like Golden Lotus which takes place some 400 years later in another period of brutal transition (sadly the comprehensive and authoritative translation of David Tod Roy died at volume 3 with its translator, though even so those 3 volumes are brilliant, but I read a superb French translation too) and from that point of view I thought GGK did a great job in recreating the atmosphere and was the main reason I rated the novel an A; I did not like other things about the novel (too much tell, too little show, too many repetitions and a main character born with the golden spoon - rich, connected, lover, poet, soldier, magician - that is boring and silly on occasion, a romance more of necessity than anything else- after all a noble cannot marry a courtesan... ) but I thought the book was pitch perfect in world building

    In the one series of GGK I am very well read historically in, I had the same impression - Sailing to Sarrantium was again pitch perfect as atmosphere though of course as history it contains a major, major u-turn from the real events and incidentally it was much better than Under Heaven as everything else...

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  18. Oh my, you never know who is playing attention on Twitter or what those conversation are going to inspire.

    I hope that everyone that writes a novel wants their readers to get to the end not hating the experience and hopefully they want to read another book by that author.

    I question Niall on his premise that by not delving hard into novel you a doing it a disservice as a reader never mind if you are going to write those experiences done in a review.

    I'm not sure ive ever seen a novel with a required reading list you need to read before you start. All you need should be delivered by the author.

    They should engage and encourage you to meet them in some way. Even if it's by easing you in.

    Though this is where genre - which is in some circles is suppossed to be accessible - beats literary fiction in terms of reader approach - as readers of genre we might be more willing to try a book as there is a, perhaps false, sense of accessibility that's not seen in lit fic?

    If I want a break I'll read authors i already know or reread something vie enjoyed just to get back to enjoying being told a story rather than having to process it.

    But I always start a novel with a you will have to hook me attitude

  19. Thanks to everyone for their comments - I'm loving the different perspective on this matter. It definitely seems as though there are differing opinions on what constitutes taking a break, and how indepth we need to be with our reading!

  20. 在莫非定律中有項笨蛋定律:「一個組織中的笨蛋,恆大於等於三分之二。」......................................................................

  21. I think for me, it largely depends on the book. Sometimes even quick reads and books that are intended to be lighthearted with spark something in me and I'll want to throw myself into what inspired them, sometimes to the point of annoying my friends with my new shiny obsessions.

    On the other hand, sometimes that doesn't need to be the case, or I don't get that spark in the same way. No matter how deep a book might be, sometimes I'm perfectly content to read the book for the book's sake, without feeling the need to dig any deeper.

    It's not a relfection on the author's ability or the story that they told, but instead just a case of good timing in when I read it. Maybe I happen to read a book when I'm more receptive or looking for a new obsession without even knowing it. Other times I may be more closed off and just content to read the book, enjoy it, and move on.

    Sometimes, too, digging too deeply can ruin the enjoyment of a book. Granted, I've noticed it happen more in nonfiction (writers of fiction can often use "artistic license" to get away with a few errors or deviations), but if the author says something that I know to be otherwise because I've done research in the past, well, it makes me look askance at the whole book. How many other errors are in there that I didn't catch, I wonder. How much can this book or author be trusted. And I start to doubt, and I don't get the same enjoyment from it that I might have had I not thrown myself into further reading first.

    Sometimes stories are like soap bubbles. Poke at it too hard to find out what makes all the pretty colours, and it pops and you're left with nothing in the end.