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On Reading and Thinking

I was reading the great article about Jonathan Franzen in Time magazine, written by none other than Lev Grossman, and while Franzen is a fascinating writer* and I look forward to not only reading Freedom, but his other books as well, there was one thing mentioned briefly that really made me stop and think. Actually, that’s not true, there were two things that really made me think, but for purposes of this post, I want to talk about just one of them.

The way Franzen thinks about it (wanting novels to survive) is that books can do things, socially useful things, that other media can’t. He cites – as one does – the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and his idea of busyness: that state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deception….

Reading, in its quietness and sustained concentration, is the opposite of busyness. “The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.”

I don’t want to get too earnest here, but isn’t that what reading is about? I read to understand people and human nature and, ultimately, myself. In The Unnamed, I learned that sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you love someone, sometimes you can only go so far. Books let you see people without the facade that they want you to see. In The Sixteen Pleasures, my thoughts about trying to make your life become what you thought it should be was given words and an illustration. In Time of my Life, I thought a lot about marriage and how it changes and how roads not taken can seem so much greener than the road you took.

That’s my ode to reading today.

*Actually, while reading the article, I was thinking it probably would have been more interesting if Grossman had interviewed Franzen’s, uh, not-quite-evil twin, @EmperorFranzen. I definitely think Franzen would be cooler with a cloak.


11 Responses to “On Reading and Thinking”

  1. Jessica

    “Freedom” was awesome! Can’t wait until you get a chance to read it.


  2. Mary ()

    I read the three books you mention and agree with you. It’s what I love most about reading – the different perspectives and flaws and frailties revealed through characters and their experiences. I think it’s why I loved The Unnamed. I thought the audiobook was wonderful (read by the author). I read The Corrections years ago (back when I still read books rec’d by O) and thought it was a good read so I’ll probably read Freedom at some point.


  3. zibilee ()

    I agree with you Trish. When I read, I am hoping to learn, engage and respond to situations other than my own. Each book I read brings me different conclusions about life and people and teaches me, dare I say, to interact better with other people. I don’t quite agree with Franzen on this matter, as I am not sure that my reading to explore the world around me is just an attempt to escape difficult situations. Great post, by the way!


  4. nikki ()

    I finished reading Freedom about two hours ago, so very timely post here! Reading is different things to different people, obviously, but you and Franzen have pretty much hit it head on.

    I read the Time article and had the pleasure of watching Franzen speak at the National Book Festival. The man said he doesn’t like moral simplicity, and it’s quite obvious in his work. But that makes his books all the more worthwhile, because in his characters, who are so deeply flawed, it’s so easy to spot yourself. I love that sort of uncomfortable feeling you get reading his work because of that.


  5. Tyler Reed ()

    Great post. I really love that idea of the “quietness” of reading. All the rest of the reading we do in our daily lives (the e-mails, blog posts, tweets, etc.) make for a different kind of reading, a frantic kind of reading that is all about efficient information consumption. There’s something really different about reading a book, and I think you (and Franzen) articulated it perfectly! 🙂


  6. Jennifer-Girls Gone Reading ()

    Loved this quote…wrote it down…going to use it all the time. Thanks


  7. heidenkind ()

    I would have to disagree with that. Reading can be used as a distraction and escape from reality, the same as anything else. Maybe it can help you understand certain things about yourself and the world, but not in the same way as if you were actually experiencing them.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love reading, but realistically if it didn’t offer me an escape from reality I wouldn’t be doing it.


    trish Reply:

    I see what you’re saying, Heidenkind, but I think both types of reading are beneficial. I don’t think Franzen was saying you can’t read to escape reality, but that certain types of reading allows people to be more introspective than they normally would be. I certainly read to escape, and these days I’m doing a lot more of THAT type of reading than thought provoking type of reading. But I think Franzen is pointing out that there’s more opportunities to be self-reflective when reading than when we’re watching TV. Reading to escape and reading to deepen your understanding of humanity are not mutually exclusive.


  8. Jo-Jo

    I love this post Trish and totally agree with you. Even reading about unfortunate situations that may make me angry usually give me a solid standing for my beliefs. We don’t live in a perfect world and I have a tendency to get annoyed with books that are all full of fluff and rose colored.


  9. Florinda ()

    “I read to understand people and human nature and, ultimately, myself.” Did you post that for #whyiread on Twitter yesterday? 🙂 My response to that was “Because it continually reshapes my view of the world,” but understanding human nature is part of that, I believe. Fiction is as close as we get to truly getting into someone else’s head.


  10. Veens

    I have a hard time finding an answer to ‘why I love reading so much’.

    Somewhere I think my thoughts are the same as yours and sometimes I think I read because I want an escape from the life I live and have a sneak peek in others lives; maybe they are better of, maybe they are bad… whatever. I am not sure, all I know is that I love to see someone else’s world unfolding in front of me, and for a brief moment forgetting my responsibilities and life.


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