Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reading motivations

Something that Elizabeth Gilbert said in a recent interview in Chatelaine struck me, and I've been meaning to blog about it for awhile. She was asked about the appeal of and the current "boom" in memoirs written by women (examples given in the interview included Lit by Mary Karr and the wonderful, heart-breaking The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Gilbert's answer was:

"I have a theory about this. My grandmother — who was pretty representative of women of her time — had to keep seven kids alive in the dust bowl during the Depression. She needed a disappearing place and she found that in books. She read fiction because reality was beating her down. My life does not have those same arduous challenges and it's easier in every way except one: I have a lot more choices than she had and life now is more confusing. I have my own autonomy, and every single day I have to organize my life in a way that my grandmother didn't have to. I don't think women today read for escape; they read for clues. The criticism of memoirs is that people read them to be voyeurs. But a lot of people read them for help and answers and perspective." *

I think this is really interesting - women read for clues. I think that's definitely part of it, and definitely something I do, not just with memoirs. Actually, I rarely read memoirs, so I can really only compare with my fiction reading. I wonder if it's more common for younger women to do what Gilbert describes, given that we lack wider life experience? I read A fortunate age and compare myself to the 20- and 30-somethings in it. Have I made the right choices? Did the characters turn out any better? I read Lynn Crosbie's brilliant, searingly horrible Liar long after I had been in the main character's situation (well, sort of) looking for answers: how did another woman deal with this? How should I? I read Zadie Smith's Changing my mind (particularly the section entitled "Feeling") thinking, Yes. Exactly.

Reviewing some of my recent reads on LibraryThing just now for this (2009; 2008), I am wondering now if I don't sometimes subliminally choose novels for pleasure reading in which the main characters have worse lives than me? Or is it just that when I read about people my age, they have very diverse lives? These days, 20- and 30- somethings (I'm right on the edge, in case you're wondering why I keep using both) can be married with kids, still in school, still in their parents' basement, or already divorced. So even more than ever, some of us need clues, or company, or answers. Or all of the above. I suppose to some of my readers who know me in person think I seem very self-assured, but I'm right there, searching, just like everyone else, I guess. Especially in this year, when I turn 30 (I'm not hung up over it, but it is a time to evaluate where you are in life...). I tend not to confide a lot in friends, so I turn to other sources, mostly books, for perspective sometimes. I wonder if memoir readers tend to be a bit like that in general?

And I guess that diversity of life choices is not even a 20- or 30- something concern. Just like that Barnes quote I mentioned last week ("Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't"). As Gilbert says, she has "a lot more choices than [her grandmother] had and life now is more confusing."

So confusing that sometimes it's tempting to bury one's head in the sand and give up. And so, at the other end of the spectrum in terms of reading motivation is Literacy and longing in LA by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack (known as The Book Lover in the UK). I read this a few years ago, and I don't usually read chicklit, but this was better than most (but still not really great. It's the type of book I read in a blitz, like eating a whole bag of chips in one sitting. Blargh....).

Anyway, on point here. It's about a woman, Dora, who suffers from what she terms bibliomania (crap, I just Googled that an it's apparently an actual OCD! Although, you know, jury's out until I see it in the DSM...). She deals with her life (separation from husband, loss of job) by going on a book reading binge, something she has done before but now does in a quite extreme way, prompting interventions from her sister and others. Dora's use of literature as drug ends up keeping her from actually living; she manages to avoid dealing with the problems in her life by literally holing herself up in the bathtub with a pile of books.

[Sarcastic sidebar: I would be in real danger if I had this kind of disposable income, to a) purchase books indiscriminately and b) hole myself up in a bathtub and not have to worry about, say, working for a living.]

I think I do this, also, just not to the same extent. Sometimes I do feel like (again, if I had the means!) I could slip into obsession. I certainly get panicky enough when I have nothing left to read, no "emergency pile" at home or at work. I read to avoid worrying, to avoid obsessing, and maybe sometimes to avoid actually going out. But then, I was never much for going out.... I don't know.

I guess I'm asking, What do you think about Gilbert's observations, and Dora's obsessions? What are your own reading motivations?

* Citation for the Gilbert interview: Giese, Rachel. "EAT PRAY, LOVE... REMARRY." Chatelaine 83.2 (2010): 102. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 10 Mar. 2010.

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