Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Do We Understand The Book Reader?

As a book promoter and writer I often speak about the news media, the art of writing, and the importance of books.  But I, and others, rarely discuss the act of reading and the role it plays in our lives.

One book, perhaps the best one I’ve ever come across on the subject, A Reader on Reading (Yale University Press, 2010, by Alberto Manguel), explores all aspects of book reading.  He even seeks to answer this question:  Can the ideal reader help the writer?  He writes:

“As every reader knows, literature is an act of shared responsibility.  And yet to suppose that this mutual act allows us to know the goal the writer has set herself, a goal that in most cases is not revealed even to the writer, is either simple-minded or fatuously arrogant.  To paraphrase another author, a book is what it is.  Whether the writer achieved what she intended, even knew what she intended to achieve anything at all except what appears between two covers is a mystery that no one, not even the writer, can answer truthfully.  The inappropriateness of the question comes from the richness and ambiguity that are, I believe the true achievements of literature.”

The relationship of writer-reader is a hard one to describe.  The writer creates, the reader responds or observes. Any kind of give and take interaction happens indirectly, separately.  The writer pours his heart out and then the reader judges what to adopt and what to discard.  Or, a real interaction could take place, after the book’s writing and the reader’s reading of it, in person, by phone or online.  But there isn’t a true a dialogue taking place.  It’s more of a snapshot of a retrospective, a post writing-reading analysis and not a real-time debate or interaction of the writer being in the moment of creation and the reader simultaneously reading the words.

I do not believe most writers write for their readers.  They write in hopes that readers will come to appreciate their words. Of course, some writers are commercial-minded and merely want to bang out whatever will sell, whatever it is that readers seem to want.  Perhaps the best writer takes both into consideration.  He or she writes from the heart, from experience, and from a creative vantage point, but instead of just unloading a stream of indecipherable consciousness, he makes some attempt to shape his work into something that readers can understand and find value in.

The best writer lets her mind and soul lead the way.  She writes, unapologetically and daringly confronts the truths, lies, and unknowns in life.  She questions as much as she espouses, shaping our thoughts as she struggles to gather her own.  But she finds a way to connect the dots between her world and the one fully outside of her.

Manguel has a chapter on the definition of the ideal reader.  Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up best when he said:  “one must be an inventor to read well.”  But Manguel also notes scores of traits of the ideal reader, including these:

“The ideal reader exists in the moment that precedes the moment of creation.”

“Ideal readers do not reconstruct a story: they re-create it.”

“Every ideal reader is an associate reader and reads as if all books were the work of one ageless and prolific author.”

“Reading a book from centuries ago, the ideal reader feels immortal.”

“An ideal reader reads to find questions.”

“For the ideal reader, every book reads, to a certain degree, as an autobiography.”

“The ideal reader is a ruthless enforcer of the rules and regulations that each book creates for itself.”

“The ideal reader must be willing, not only to suspend disbelief, but to embrace a new faith.”

“Ideal readers change with age.  The fourteen-year-old reader of Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems is no longer its ideal reader at thirty.  Experience tarnishes certain readings.”

So much goes into a reader’s experience.  It’s hard to determine what shapes a reader and provides the biggest qualification for how he or she will come to understand, interpret, appreciate, and react to what was read. Here are at least 31 factors that likely play a role in what will influence or impact a reader:

1.      The reader’s age and stage of life.
2.      The age-appropriateness of the book.
3.      The I.Q. of the reader.
4.      The education level of the reader.
5.      The quantity, quality, and variety of books read in the past.
6.      The past experiences of the reader.
7.      How the reader was raised – at home and the neighborhood environment.
8.      The readers race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.
9.      How well the reader understands and commands the language.
10.  The psychological make-up of the reader.
11.  Whether one reads when tired, under the influence of medication, illegal drugs, alcohol or some other mind-altering substance.
12.  How much knowledge or experience the reader has on the subject he is reading about.
13.  The era  the reader lives in at present – and the times the writer lived during the penning of the book.
14.  Whether the reader is an optimist or pessimist.
15.  The economic status of the reader.
16.  Why the reader chose to read the book and what, if any, assumptions or preconceived notions he read it under.
17.  A reader’s awareness of the writer’s life and/or experience in reading the author’s prior writings.
18.  The reader’s familiarity with the genre and competing titles.
19.  The reader’s biases, prejudices, fears, and desires.
20.  If the reader was in the middle of an emotional high or low while reading the book.
21.  Family status – siblings, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, kids.
22.  Relationship experience/status.
23.  Your politics.
24.  If you were ever a victim or perpetrator of a crime.
25.  If you were ever in a life-threatening situation.
26.  Disabled.
27.  Career/profession.
28.  Where you’ve traveled to.
29.  Physical attributes.
30.  Where you live or have lived (regionality)
31, The book's subject matter and quality of content

Readers bring their lives to the table every time they take on a book. Every bit of knowledge, experience, or fantasy plays a role in how the reader consumes a book.  The decision to read a particular book has already shaped, to a degree, the perceived experience or fantasy plays a role in how the reader consumes a book.  The decision to read a particular book has already shaped, to a degree, the perceived experience a reader cold have of the book.  Readers determine if they like a book for any number of reasons.  Did it:

·         Make them feel something?
·         Leave them with a memorable experience?
·         Provide a good insight?
·         Make them question something?
·         Give them inspiration, motivation, or enlightenment?
·         Allow them to feel accepted, understood, even desired?
·         Give them an escape to a world they’d otherwise not experience?
·         Provide laughter and smiles?
·         Help them understand the world or themselves?
·         Make them want to take an action step?
·         Put productive thoughts and ideas into their frame of mind?

Books can help readers in so many ways, perhaps ways even the reader is not aware of or are easily understood.  Perhaps a book has more value years after reading it, helping to put into context a life that at the time of the reading was not ready for it.

Readers, if impacted by a book, will start to live out what they read.  They will share the book with others or they will go out of their way to condemn it.  Many books are not read with neutrality in mind.  The readers want to like it – or they are ready to hate it.  If a book is merely mediocre, it does more harm than a lousy book.  The worst is for a book to not make you feel or think something.

So many things can influence the reading experience, not just the background, state of mind or experiences of the reader.  There’s the book itself and how it impacts the reader.  There’s the reading environment – the location and setting of where the reading takes place.  The lighting.  The chair.  The level of alertness of the reader.  The time available to read the book.  The current climate of society – what’s going on in the world and what times of year are you reading in?

Another influence guiding a reader is the reader’s expectation going into it.  Does the reader have reason to think the book will be of a certain quality or theme – and does the book live up to such expectations?  Does the reader know much about the book or author going into its reading?  Did the reader see many reviews, author interviews, or media coverage of the book?  Was it recommended reading by a close friend or trusted source?

Did the book’s packaging, title, back cover copy, or a testimonial draw the reader into expect something?  Did the cover imagery seduce the reader but not deliver as hoped for?

Most people read books for different reasons and no two people experience a book in exactly the same manner.  Even though books are mass produced, the reading experience is highly personal, intimate, and customized.  Readers – and how they read – play a key role in what gets published and how writers write.  The process of reading is fascinating.  Here are excerpts from Manguel’s delightful book:

1. “I believe that we are, at the core, reading animals and (the art of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species.  We come into the world intent on finding narrative in everything: in the landscape, in the skies, in the faces of others, and, of course, in the images and words that our species creates."

2. “Pairing words with experience and experience with words, we, readers, sift through stories that echo or prepare us for an experience, or tell us of experiences that will never be ours, as we know all too well, except on the burning page. Accordingly, what we believe a book to be reshapes itself with every reading.  Over the years, my experience, my tastes, my prejudices have changed: as the days go by, my memory keeps re-shelving, cataloging, discarding the volumes in my library; my words and my world except for a few constant landmarks – are never one and the same."

3. "What remains invariable is the pleasure of reading, of holding a book in my hands and suddenly feeling that peculiar sense of wonder, recognition, chill, or warmth that for no discernible reason a certain string of words sometimes evokes."

4. "I believe that sometimes, beyond the author’s intentions and beyond the reader’s hopes, a book can make us better and wiser."

5. "In our book-centered societies, the craft of reading signals our entrance into the ways of the tribe, with its particular codes and demands, allowing us to share the common source of recorded words;."

6. "Readers must make books theirs."

7. "I am wary of seeing in one man’s reading, however brilliant that reading might be, a reflection of his own self."

8. "Literature, as we know all too well does not offer solutions, but poses good conundrums.  It is capable, in telling a story, of laying out the infinite convolutions and the intimate simplicity of a moral problem, and of leaving us with the conviction of possessing a certain clarity with which to perceive not a universal but a personal understanding of the world."

9. "We can slow down or speed up our reading, but whatever we do as readers, the passing of time will always be clocked by the turning of a page.  The page limits, cuts, extends, censors, reshapes, translates, stresses, defuses, bridges, and separates our reading, which we arduously attempt to reclaim.  In this sense, the act of reading is a power struggle between reader and page over the dominion of the text.  Usually, it is the page that wins."

10. "Unused, unread, the book is a deadly weapon."

11. "A fierce paradox exists at the heart of every school system.  A society needs to impart the knowledge of its codes to its citizens so that they can become active in it; but the knowledge of that code, beyond the mere ability of deciphering a political slogan, an advertisement, or a manual of basic instructions, enables those same citizens to question that society, to uncover its evils and attempt a change.  In the very system that allows a society to function lies the power to subvert it, for better or for worse.  So the teacher, the person appointed by that society to unveil to its new members the secrets of its shared vocabularies, becomes in fact a danger to that same society, a Socrates able to corrupt the youth, someone who must on the one hand rebelliously teach civil disobedience and the art of critical questions and on the other submit to the laws of the society that has assigned the teacher’s position – submit even to the point of self-destruction, as was the case with Socrates.  A teacher in forever caught in this double bind: to teach in order to make students think on their own, while teaching according to a social structure that imposes a curb on thinking."

12. "There is no such thing as a school for anarchists, and yet, in some sense, every teacher must teach anarchism, must teach the students to question rules and regulations, to seek explanations in dogma, to confront impositions without bending to prejudice, to demand authority from those in power, to find a place from which to speak their own ideas, even if this means opposing, and ultimately doing away with, the teacher herself."

13. "Lip service is paid to the concept of literacy and books are officially celebrated, but effectively our schools and universities are becoming mere training grounds for the workforce, instead of places in which curiosity and reflection are fostered."

14. "But to go further and deeper, to have the courage to face our fears and doubts and hidden secrets, to question the workings of society in regard to ourselves and to the world, in order to learn to think, we need to learn to read in other ways, differently."

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs 

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