Mark Athitakis Newsletter #31

Pleasure. Ugh.

Someone on Twitter asked last week: "If you write about books/otherwise work in publishing, what percentage of your reading is for pleasure?"

I didn't respond, because the question made me upset when I first saw it. "It's all pleasure, dammit!" I said, flinging down a galley of another mediocre-to-OK forthcoming novel. OK, I…didn’t do that. (Just like I've actually never done that thing where you throw a book against a wall when you don't like it. Not my temperament. Also, I worry about ricochets, don’t you? Hitting the dog, busting a lamp...) Maybe I was upset because the question unearths some of these issues that I just tend to power through without contemplating too much---that maybe reading outright stops being fun if you make it into work, that if you're not reading for “pleasure,” maybe you're reading the wrong way.

But—-and I recognize that asking the question makes you look pedantic—-what do we mean by “pleasure,” anyhow? I've been writing about books---and feeding 80-90 percent of my book reading into writing about books---for so long I only vaguely recall what doing it any other way might be like. Sometime in the late 90s, I made an explicit decision that I wasn't going to treat classics as something I might catch up with during my retirement; I was going to start reading them now. Was this a commitment to pleasure, or to edification? The line was always pretty fuzzy to me; still is.

In any event, my reading immediately after that decision was almost comically determined and programmatic. I read the Bible cover to cover. I read the entire Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2. I read a lot of Czelaw Milosz; I read a lot of Philip Roth. I don't tell you about this ambitious reading with great pride. I read too quickly back then, too poorly---I approached books in the same collector-geek spirit that moved me to get completist about, say, Clash albums. And while there was a lot of pleasure in that reading---I discovered Portnoy's Complaint and My Antonia and Native Realm---the experience seemed to hone a certain kind of ruthlessness in my reading habits. It's an attitude that equipped me pretty well for reviewing work, where the pleasure of reading is always competing with the notion that you'll also be writing about that pleasure (if there is pleasure there). You're always reading as a kind of rehearsal for talking about reading.

James Wood said in an interview once that that's what a critic does---read in two ways, experiencing what a book is doing and how it's creating that effect. It's immersion, but not so deep that you lose yourself. I think what the Twitter poll was trying to speak to is whether people in the “biz” have the capacity to lose themselves. Don't you ever just want to read on one level? If you're in publishing, you may tire of looking at every manuscript as a potential commercial good; if you're a critic, you might tire of reading through the filter of interpretation, or trying to sell readers on a book, or put them off it, or just talk about what make it interesting.

But we people who "write about books/otherwise work in publishing" aren't the only people who behave this way, who read on two levels. Book club readers, people who write thoughtful Amazon and Goodreads reviews for no compensation beyond likes and follow-up comments, people who chat up the clerk at the bookstore counter about books, are also doing that work, no? For any serious reader, professional or no, the act of reading is about both the book itself and the meaning that we make of it. 

So maybe what bothered me about the question, beyond how it prompted me to think about what “pleasure” is, is that there's a bit of a humblebrag embedded in it---that we people who do things with books for a living are encumbered by all the thinking we’re doing, while people who don't read books for their job...aren't. But we all make decisions about what a book is going to mean for us. And critics and “regular” readers alike are both chasing that moment when a book forces the matter, demands to be heard and thought about. Fun.

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A few good things I read recently: Nikole Hannah-Jones and Wesley Morris' essays for the New York Times 1619 Project; Emma Baccellieri's profile of the keeper of the super-secret mud that is applied to every major-league baseball; Leslie Jamison's layover tales; Daniel Mendelsohn's interview with Poets & Writers as part of its ongoing Q&As with critics. Hanging on to this bit: "I can’t imagine any serious writers really think about pleasing their readers: You write to please yourself, to scratch an itch, to answer a question that burns for you." Also, I wrote about Caleb Crain’s second novel, Overthrow, a sensitive tale about love and the surveillance state, for the Washington Post.

Thanks for reading. Write me: mathitak@gmail.com

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