There are different ways to read a novel. There are different reasons that we read, different levels on which we engage, different things we get out of it.
Reading through editorial eyes, can be a complicated process. Especially when it’s your own work you’re editing…
When editing a book you tend to think of it as something functional, a creation with surfaces to be polished and tools to be applied. A construction to be arranged and critiqued until well oiled.
In this endeavour everything to do with the novel becomes equipment. The characters aren’t people, they are tools, puppets to be manipulated. The setting becomes a Paper Mache set, to be painted and filled with props. The plot becomes a series of events to be arranged and rearranged until they’re as romantic, or fantastic, or thrilling as desired.
And it’s easy to get into a habit of reading like this, so that even when you’re not editing or thinking critically about a book, but reading it for pure enjoyment, this same approach creeps through.
It’s certainly a useful way of reading. It allows you to consider the purpose of the book, all of its elements and what it has been made to say, to mean. But long ago literary scholarship determined that the creators of a book and the reasons for its creation, although there to be mined from the book if you wished, certainly didn’t need to determine what a book could say, or what a book could mean.
There’s another, completely different way of reading a novel than that of the critical editor. It involves seeing the book as a world in which to immerse yourself, a world of places, and people and events, devoid of a puppet master who controls them. The novel’s world simply exists, without an author having to create it. Viewing it in this way brings it vividly to life, and allows for endless possibilities of perception and meaning.
Like many readers, fan pages and book clubs do, it’s intriguing to consider the characters as people. To think about what motivates them, what is important to them, and how they interact with others. They are beings within themselves. This is of course the logic that accompanies things like fan fiction.
I’ve been writing a book club pack for a novel Odyssey has helped with. I’m putting together a series of questions that can help stimulate discussion about the characters, setting, themes etc. at book clubs. So I thought about what I would want to talk about in relation to this book, or any book really. What was engaging and exciting?
The book I was writing the pack for, The Bishop’s Girl by Rebecca Burns, is really well written. It jumps between various time periods and characters, from a 19th century bishop to a present day archivist, taking the reader on a tense and exciting journey. A story of history, discovery and genealogy, The Bishop’s Girl also tackles the pressing issues of the everyday, like marriage, kids, friendships and self-discovery. You can find the book here.
With books as well crafted as this one, it seems a waste not to consider the literary tools used to construct it. Similarly though, some of the most captivating discussions about books come out of their ability to create characters and worlds that are so real that they stay alive even after the author has finished writing them. The ability to imagine and debate what could have happened, why events did happen and what they meant, hints at the captivating authenticity of a well-written book. I thought this approach was especially important given the vivid characters and environments that appear in The Bishop’s Girl.
When writing the book club pack then, I tried to work in questions that asked the reader to look at the book as a device, having a function for the reader, but also as a world in which the people, places and events truly existed.
It made me realise the importance of achieving a balance between styles of reading, between critical and immersive approaches, that I hope I can cultivate better in my future reading. Books are incredible in the many different ways they can be read. You can write a whole PhD thesis on a novel, or flick through the sandy pages on holiday, imaging yourself in the character’s shoes. And I will endeavour to remind myself, as put into words by this blog, to remember, and value, both of these styles. May my reading ever be analytical but also fanciful, constructive but also immersive.