From Sara Zarr's blog: "Richard Rodriguez says that the reader re-creates the book when he reads it." I completely agree, and you long time readers of my blog know my opinions about How to Be a Reader. No story is static. A book has no meaning on its own. Meaning is created for each reader as they read. I've been thinking about this lately as I've been hearing people's responses to the last book in a certain trilogy.
I think that whether you are a reader, writer, or both (if you're a writer you'd better be both), reading books is far more useful when we shed the need to be a literary critic and focus instead on the internal. It's been interesting to hear over and over again what readers imagined the author failed to do. And I keep thinking, that's such a useless response. Unless you're getting a phd in literacy criticism and doing your thesis on that author, that's not helpful to you. Speculation about what the author was trying to do, or whether or not she was "tired" of writing, etc., is pointless. We don't know. Instead, it's so much more beneficial to focus on understanding our own internal reader, and therefore ourselves. Where did the story fail you? Where did it work for you? So, what does that say about you? What were you hoping for? What did you need from the story? If you're a writer, what does that tell you about what kind of a story you want to write? For me, this kind of responding is just about how I think about the book. Instead of thinking, "The author really dropped the ball on the ending," I try thinking, "What did I want out of the ending instead of what I got? Why did I want that?"
I've become more and more conscious of this way of reading over the past several years. It stems from hearing really weird responses to my own books and hearing readers speculate about ludicrous reasons I did this or that and assert false motivations for my story choices. Realizing how often readers do that about my works made me realize how often I thought that way about other people's books. Sometimes the speculation is right, most of the time it's not, but regardless, I realized I was throwing away my reading experience. I've now become a much more selfish reader, perhaps. When a story bugs me, I'm not thinking about the author but myself. Why am I bugged? What do I want? I think I come away from books now with a better understanding of myself as well as a better awareness of story that I can utilize in my own writing.
Reading as a writer changed me completely as a reader. I find I can still appreciate books I dislike because I am learning through them how to write stories I do like. I don't mean everything I've said here to be a blueprint for reading and the only proper way to read a book. THere are lots of ways to read a book. But I hope to call into question the sometimes assumed idea that we read books to label them as either good or bad. To me that's as silly as getting to know people just so we can categorize them as either good or bad. It's not for me to judge and label people. And if my only experience with books is a judgement call, a rating of stars, then I would soon tire of reading. For me, reading is an exploration, a partnership, me and the author via her words off on an adventure. For my personal reading experience, some authors are better companions than others, but it's always an adventure.