It’s actually not too different from why I write stories.
I read stories…
- to find out what happens next. I didn’t realize how powerful a force narrative was until I was reading in my second language (French). I had the choice between Descartes’ Discourse on Method (simple, straightforward technical prose) and Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma (deeply twisty plot, heavy-duty literary vocabulary) and it was the latter that sucked me in and kept my attention. Some writers have such powerful narrative drive that I had trouble being honest with the dictionary, at least in French. In Russian, I had no choice, because I started out with insufficient vocabulary. The narrative piece of the brain is really, really powerful and can deal even when you’re whacked out on painkillers, as I was post-surgery some years ago. I couldn’t manage art history or geometry (linear perspective), the two things I was reading at the time, but I could manage narratives.
- to go on a trip, somewhere else (as someone else). That’s actually the same reason that I write: to put on another skin, and I think it’s what draws me to tales of magic and other worlds: to be commonsensical and everyday about something that doesn’t exist in our world. There are realistic writers who can take me on a trip. I don’t need to take mind-altering drugs if I’ve got Virginia Woolf’s novels or Marina Tsvetaeva’s autobiographical essays or Henry Thoreau’s naturalist’s notes at hand.
- to meet new people. The characters stay with me for a long time, as does the author’s particular lens. Realistic fiction from other countries or times is like foreign travel, and in present-tense it teaches me about the lives of people who aren’t me. There’s nothing to get you inside a culture like its stories. To turn it around to writing, I know that a story is going to work out as soon as the characters show up. I might throw ingredients in the cookpot/cauldron, but it isn’t until a real person steps across the barrier from Not-There to Here that the story really starts to grow.
- to savor the elegances of plot. I feel plot as impetus on the first pass (where it keeps me reading), but on the second reading I feel it as structure. And there’s no pleasure like being inside a gorgeous piece of narrative architecture. I’m still learning plot as a writer, and part of that education is being conscious of it as a reader. A really splendid plot is one that creates more tension on the third reading than on the first; knowing how it turns out should crank the suspense even more. That’s the principle on which tragedy is built.
- to watch a train wreck. Yeah, speaking of tragedy, when you know how it turns out but you want to watch the trajectory, and in particular watch the characters’ reactions. As a kid, my two favorite train wrecks were the Nordic Twilight of the Gods (from Padraic Collum’s Children of Odin, which I read at age seven) and Nevil Shute’s post-nuclear-apocalypse novel On the Beach, a Chekhovian study in denial (read and obsessively re-read, the year I was twelve). Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard is another train wreck. And Macbeth, excuse me, “The Scottish play,” which never pales, and Hamlet, ditto. Just watching the characters entangle themselves in the machinery of karma. Heck yeah.
- to learn new things about using language. Funny, I really only notice the language when I’m not reading in English, but I think that’s a function of speed, and also that the spoken language is still very close to the surface; I can feel the texture and rhythm of prose in French or Russian much more easily than I can in English. In English, I always have to re-read, or read aloud.
There’s more, I know, but I think this covers the major bases. What intrigues me is how close reading is to writing: it’s a very powerful sort of lucid dreaming. It’s conjuring: serious heavy-duty brain magic.
Why do you read stories?
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