How We Read… Assumptions & Expectations

Last week I posted about the book July’s People by Nadine Gordimer, the latest read for book group, which not only brought up the interesting discussions about the book itself but also how we read. For example the book is a possible imagined vision of South Africa and yet myself (and some other members of the group) believed that it was based on fact. We had no reason to we just did somewhere subconsciously before even reading a page I had made an assumption. This has made me wonder about how I read and my reading habits. This could go off on a tangent but bear with it there’s lots of questions for you all as we go and I would love a discussion about this… Do we ever sit and think about how we read?

One commenter on that post made the very valid point that fiction is just that… its fiction, which of course is true. I wondered then if because it was literary fiction or because it was based in South Africa I instantly made the assumption. Would I have it I had know I was about to read a book of a genre such as crime, science fiction or horror?

Having said that fiction is fiction I am now wondering if I read it differently from others out there. I don’t want to be sat reading a book and be aware its fiction. I like to get lost in the book I want to believe that it’s all real and that the characters and all that happens to them (it doesnt have to be dramatic, in fact subtle realities are even more convincing) could really have happened. To me that the sign of a good book, I am lost in it oblivious to the reality outside the book as I am lost in a new real world the author is creating in my head. Or is that just me and maybe my need for escapism?

The other point that ‘July’s People’ brought up was we were all initially put off by the writing style. Gordimer can change narrative in a sentence, in fact reading her as one member mentioned is very much like reading a book where someone has said ‘that’s how your meant to write so I will do something completely different’. I was in the same boat, very like with some of Woolf’s work that I have read recently, initially slightly put off this strange new style of writing. Had it not been for book group and the fact like I make sure I finish it, I would probably have given up and thought ‘oh no that’s a bit like hard work’ and I would have missed out on a great book. Does it not matter as there are so many more great books out there if we miss one what’s the big deal (not my opinion but one I know some have)? Do we too often give up on books that could be amazing we just need to read in a different way like I might have had I not read on?

I am now slightly worried this makes me sound like a lazy reader and even though I don’t think I am one, maybe I actually am? After all I don’t think an author should spell every thing out, or explain every single detail do you? I am actually a firm believer that a book which is too spelt out won’t work as reading is both the effort of the author for creating on the page and you the reader creating in your mind isn’t it? A collaborative creation where fiction almost becomes reality? What do we expect and assume when we reach for a book, even subconsciously or unintentionally?

I am hoping I didn’t waffle or go on too many tangents and all makes sense, I tried to rein it in as a subject and yes you guessed it, if any other book bring up these kind of questions there might be more ‘How We Read’ posts.

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47 Comments

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47 responses to “How We Read… Assumptions & Expectations

  1. Jessica

    I HAVE to know if its non-fiction or fiction and if it is non-fiction then I tend to do abit of research on the side to work out what really did happen during the time. I think that makes me far too much the other way from you and most people are in the middle somewhere. The last book I read when I did this was Brixton Beach, I found all sorts about the Sri Lanka civil war because I have to read it in context. Ive learnt alot more about various subjects such as the Spanish civil war and Henry VIII as a result and for me this is part of the fun.

    • I have Brixton Beach on the TBR pile at the moment and it sounds like it covers some amazing periods in the history of a country I know little about. I do tend to any research after as sometimes if I research it too much it can kill the book for me.

  2. I don’t think you’re a lazy reader otherwise you wouldn’t be asking yourself these questions, right? I think that it’s only human to have expectations of books and this is why publishers set the tone with a blurb and so on. But you are right, I times that it is important to step back and read with a more open mind and not just judge a book on it’s immediate enjoyability. Having said that, one of the reasons that I read is for fun, so I think that there has to be a balance. Perhaps choosing to pick more difficult books and discuss as a group is the best approach for stretching our reading styles!

    • Well thats a very kind way of looking at it Polly and I will slip you that £50 next time I see you for saying that hahaha.

      I think its interesting that had Gordimer set the book somewhere else I probably wouldnt have been reading it thinking it was really based on fact. Take me to some unknown surroundings and their history and it looks like I assume it is all real.

      I agree bookish balance is always good.

  3. Pingback: How I Read « A Striped Armchair

  4. Eva

    I started to reply in a comment, and ended up writing a post on my blog instead! It’s just about my reading, though, so I’m still replying to my thoughts on your post here. 😉

    I don’t think you’re a lazy reader! And I adore novels that just sweep me away, and make me forget that I’m even reading. 🙂

    I do tend to assume that non-genre fiction is set in a factual world, unless the author drops hints to the contrary (mainly by making the narrator unreliable or something). I don’t think that I automatically assume international fiction is more factual than US/UK fiction, but I also don’t have nearly as much background knowledge to catch on to what’s real/what’s imaginary, especially if it’s my first time reading an author.

    I definitely don’t mind working for a book, but there has to be some justification of the author’s experimental style. If it feels like they’re just doing it to be different, I usually get annoyed!

    Like you, I value subtlety in fiction, and I think all of my favourite authors trust the readers to fill in the gaps.

    • I am honoured that my post could inspire such a wonderful post from you. I will try my hardest not to be jealous that yours was so much better than mine Eva hee hee.

      It is very much non-genre fiction that makes me think ist factual too and really I shouldnt but I simply cannot help it.

      I 100% agree with you on the fact that some authors may have been known to write something ‘out there’ or ‘experimental’ but I think readers are wise to that and tend to just put a book like that to one side. I know I do.

  5. I think that the magic of fiction is that you forget your surroundings and believe entirely in the world of the novel, being it our world and our time or somewhere completely foreign. The really good novels pique our interest, leave us scrambling to find out more about the topics and places they cover. And if they don’t, if we don’t feel the need to investigate more, to determine what in the novel was fact and what was fiction? No harm done.

    I’m also not a fan of reading something because you think you should, even when you’re not particularly enjoying it. If you’re enjoying the subject but not the style, I can understand continuing, or vice-versa, but if you have no interest and are only reading it because it’s deemed “worthy”? There are too many good books, books that I find both interesting and well-written, for me to want to spend my time slogging through something that turns reading from a pleasure to a chore.

    • I didnt feel I was reading this because I should (my mother – an english teacher – thinks that why everyone reads Woolf which makes me laugh) but with a book group book I will read it to the very end because I dont feel I can add to the discussion if I dont. If I hadnt pushed with this one a bit I honestly would have missed out on a treat.

  6. On my copy of July’s People a blurb on the front from Anne Tyler helped, which ended “every one of its events seem chillingly, ominously possible” so I saw it a lot and was reminded that this wasn’t fiction that was based in fact but was a plausible envisaging of potential fact. I do love fiction (and I do mainly read literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction, although they often overlap anyway) that I can immerse myself in so much so that it is difficult to separate fiction from fact; I think great fiction does that, transfixes you so completely that you are unable to distinguish between reading and reality.

    I don’t think that you are a lazy reader if you are questioning your habits and challenging yourself and any preconceptions/expectations that you may have.

    • Mine didnt have anything by Tyler, I would have warmed to the book even more if it had as I do like Tyler as an author. Isnt it funny how we do that?

      I am very wary of blurbs and might shock people when I say on the whole I have given up reading them because far too many times I have been sold a story that isnt in the book. I have to say I wonder on occasion if people who write the blurbs have actually read the book.

  7. Interesting post, Simon! Society is built on sets of accepted assumptions; we make plenty of assumptions every day without even thinking about it, and that follows over into our reading as well. I will make assumptions about books based simply on the cover photo sometimes, or on the colour of the spine, or the ethnicity of the author, and so on. It’s the way humans work! I do think, like Eva says, with fiction set outside of your knowledge base, you do take it for granted that stuff is factual because you don’t know otherwise.

    I expect fiction to be escapist in some respect – I do want to be swept away – but I will also expect a certain level of realism – so for example, if I’m reading a novel set in the 19th century, as much as I want the story to be entertaining and fun, I would expect the setting to be historically accurate.

    I don’t mind challenging books but if a book makes me work too hard, then I can’t be bothered with it. I don’t think that’s lazy -I just think it’s a case of personal preference. I like a good story and if a style of writing makes it difficult for me to even work out what the story is, then it’s not going to be my cup of tea.

    I love books that keep me guessing and don’t answer everything – it’s good to make the reader work a little!

    Reading is such a personal thing and I don’t think there are any rights and wrongs – but I know I sometimes make assumptions that turn out to be wrong and so I am trying not to have too many preconceived ideas (snobbery, mainly!) about authors.

    • Yes I think thats what I wanted to say only I didnt manage to as well as you or Eva, if its outside what I know then I assume its based on truth. I also agree with you, I have decided I love (and on occasions loathe) a book on its cover without reading a word.

      I think settings and factual are slightly different in my mind, but I do agree the setting needs to be apt or it will break the spell. Sometimes even a line of speech makes you think ‘no, no they wonuldnt have said that’ and the magic is gone.

      I am big on readers working at books and be able to colour bits in, I dont understand books that spell every single thing out, why? In the cases of Book Groups it also adds to the discussion.

  8. Wonderful post! No, you are most definitely not a lazy reader. Your post reminds me of my experience with Beloved. When it first came out, I rushed out and bought a copy as Ms. Morrison was one of my favorite authors. But for the life of me, I could not get past the first chapter of book. The style, subject matter, what lurked in the writing, in the book scared me off. For ten years, I went around wondering what the fuss was all about! Well, after ten years has passed, I picked Beloved up one saturday and proceeded to sit through two readings of the book. Beloved is one of my all-time favorite books now. So what has transpired between my first attempt and the second successful reading of the book?

    I’ve concluded that within that 10 year interim I read more books, more difficult books and that what I’d read had prepared me to finally accept Beloved for what it was. Most definitely, as readers, we have to be willing to accept the book and be receptive to all the places that the author wants to take us. It sort of like raising the threshold for pain!

    That said, I still can’t get past the first chapter of Ulysses. Hoping I can read the book this decade.

    • I do think the more we read the more we grow as readers and I am also a huge believer in books that you love having been a mixture of the writing, the tale and the timing, it all needs to match just so. This is why I wont re-read some books like The Little History, everything was so right back when I read it and I am not sure it could be again.

      I gave up on Ulysses, sorry thats not very helpful or inspiring… go on Kinna you can do it!

  9. I definitely read to escape, the more I forget the real world the better the book. However this does often mean having some reality in the book so that your imagination can accept/believe the story your reading…if that makes sense. The writing style is a big thing for me if I don’t enjoy the style it will most likely spoil the story for me not matter how good the story is. I don’t think its wrong to be this way at all, books aren’t just about the story they are an art form through the written word. If you don’t like how the authors uses words then I think its perfectly valid not to like the book. But as you said reading is such a personal thing, great to discuss it though.

    • I agree with you in terms of writing style. My point was that I do sometimes think I (and maybe others – as some of the book group agreed they did) get stuck in their ways about what they think a writing style should be and sometimes it is nice to stretch yourself with these boundaries you might not even know you have created. That sounds preachy and I dont mean it to lol, you hopefully get what I mean.

      • No I understand lol I got shock recently when I read The Road…not what I am used to at all!! But I hate to give up on books, only given up on one in my life. Once I got used to the style of The Road I was fine. I like to think I’m open minded and won’t decide until after I’ve read the whole book if the style just wasn’t for me, not let the style stop me in the first place.

      • The Road is a perfect example of a great read people might miss out on because they dont care for the style or its not what they are used too, a wonderful example Jessica.

  10. gaskella

    Lazy? Never! And what a great post…

    I’ve found that as I’ve grown older, I read very differently. I still read for the thrill of it, but I do consider what I’m reading more and blogging has definitely helped me to reflect on it too, (I must try Beloved again!). Very occasionally, I’ll look things up to help the read (cf Brixton Beach above – I checked out the civil war too). But most of all I like to wallow in the world the author has conjured up – I’m quite gullible. Of course, a book set in a real world, time and place has to be credible, but I like being able to fill in the gaps too.

    • You have hit one of the nails on the head. Credibility, even if there are moth winged cows flying through the pages I think if its credible and written believeably then why not? Credible doesnt always have to mean linear reality does it? Well said Annabel, everyone else is so much more eloquent than me lol!

  11. farmlanebooks

    I’m a lazy reader. I read for relaxation and enjoyment. I don’t care how fantastic the book might be – if it is hard work then I just don’t enjoy the reading experience. I might appreciate the importance of the book, but it would put me off reading other books by the same author. Wolf Hall and July’s People both fell into this category.

    • I wouldnt classify you as a lazy reader or you wouldnt be in a book group would you (as they are there to challenge)? Or try so many varying books on your blog even if you dont always love them?

      You would just read the same old same old all the time which probably wouldnt work on a blog would it?

  12. The fact that you’re analyzing how you read makes you a much less lazy reader than I, Simon, since I’m usually more concerned with figuring out what the author’s trying to do than with anything else on my part! I do have a fondness for authors who can tell a whopping story while providing some sort of a “commentary” on the text that you’re reading at the same time (a few examples: Bolaño, Cervantes in Don Quixote, Chaucer in Canterbury Tales), but I realize that what I take as “playfulness” or a little bit of an in-joke in exposing the artificiality of fiction rubs many people the wrong way. Woolf is a good, but complicated, example of a related matter: I admire her attempts to tell stories in new ways, but I don’t always enjoy her storytelling experience itself. Too each his/her own, I say, but I’m constantly shocked by the number of bloggers who seem weirded out by anything that doesn’t resemble a 19th century novel with an omniscient narrator. I do think how the author tells a story is just as important as what he or she has to say, though.

    • I think we all probably subconciously analyse and edit our reading habits every time we finish a book and process it we might just not be aware of it but am sure we have all had moments of ‘oh am not reading that author again’ or ‘oh I dont like that style’ we just maybe dont always ask why and this book made me do that.

  13. Interesting questions, all. I think that like you, I assume fiction is based on a factual world if it includes scenarios, events, or dates that seem factual – what Norman Mailer called “faction.” I appreciate an author who does his/her homework when it comes to surrounding history, events, place, etc.

    That being said, if they are going to “alter” the facts, I need to know that as well. I commonly refer to things I’ve read once I’ve read them, and I do not want to operate on the assumption that something is true if it is not. Usually if it is not factual, there will be other hints as to that – an unreliable narrator, magical realism, sci-fi hints, the horizon is skewed.

    I don’t think that at all makes you or me a lazy reader. Instead, it makes us intrepid, curious and a bit compulsive. 🙂 Nothing wrong with those things.

    Also, in terms of narrator, it doesn’t have to be third-person omniscient for me to appreciate it. However, I do appreciate consistency. I even read a novel recently with two narrators – one in third person, the other in first. That was fine by me because it was consistent. Had it not been, we’d have been in trouble.

    • I really like the idea of being an “intrepid, curious and a bit compulsive” reader thats for sure.

      I think because we make it real in our heads its ometimes just becomes the simple truth. I have done this with vivid dreams before, or when someone tells you a moment in your childhood you have no recollection of but hear the story so many times it becomes a memory.

  14. Great post, Simon. Just as there are different types of books there are different types of readers. And the type of reader you are can change over time, or even between books!

    I generally read because I want to broaden my horizons and learn more about the world and the people that live it. Of course I read for entertainment/escapism too, but I like to discover new things when I read, and I especially love books that look at why ordinary people do extraordinary things.

    I’m generally a curious reader — I want to know more about particular topics/subjects so will use the internet to help me find out more (what did we ever do before the internet?) either while I’m reading the book or after I’ve finished it. I thought I had a reasonable knowledge of aparthied until I read July’s People and then did some research online and discovered a wealth of info I didn’t know about. Ditto for the book I read about wartime Berlin. Even my obsession with Irish novels was purely because I was fascinated/curious about Catholicism (despite being an atheist).

    As Gaskella points out above, my reading — and my analysis of what I read — has changed a lot since I’ve been blogging. I feel, in many ways, that I have grown as a reader; I’m more likely to read out of my comfort zones these days and I’m more likely to analyse the book in terms of what I thought the writer was trying to achieve rather than what I was expecting from it.

    • You are quite right Kim I actually think I need to look at my reading history (as that could be a whole post in itself) and I am sure I would see how I have changed as a reader. I also mentioned to Richard that I think subconciously we all edit or reading thoughts and habits after each book as we process it, it just takes certain books to give you a clearer vision of you doing it yourself.

      Curious reading is a phrase that should be coined, I really like that.

      I also agree that blogging has changed my reading in many ways, I am open to more books but also probably think about them as I am reading and after more than I have done before. Book group also makes me do the same thing too.

  15. A great post. I think that as long as I can fall into a book I don’t care if it is set in the factual world or a made up place (although I can’t bare the idea of picking up a book set in space- that’s going too far for me), and I don’t need what happens to be realistic. That said I love Magical Realism and some urban fantasy. For me it is generally all about the story and my ability to transcend into the world of the book.
    When I started studying literature I struggled at first with some of the books where the author wants you to be very aware of the fact that they are there and they are the clever so-and-sos who wrote the thing in your hands. But gradually I got used to this, and don’t mind a read which is more difficult. However, with this type of book both the story and the writing need to be good.
    I think some books are worth persevering with, A Suitable Boy took my three attempts and I loved it when I finished it. And a course change at uni meant I had a day to read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (I can’t go to a lecture without having read the whole book), I hated the book as I was reading it because it was difficult and I was being forced to read it, but actually loved the story.
    Great post

    • Your comment about the book in space made me laugh, we all have certain books I think that we just dont do… but then you may find one comes a long and you go ‘goodness I must read more space books’ lol.

      I like your point on Midnights Children, I am actually trying to get much better at giving myself more time with books that have a deadline rather than my normal ‘oh a day or two before will be fine’ as the pressure and forcing myself kills the book a little. Reading isnt meant to be a chore.

  16. Love this post! And you are NOT a lazy reader, Simon. I think that I am always willing to go for a ride in whatever world has been created in a work of fiction. To lose myself. Occasionally I will pull out to ground my experience. Not just escapism though. The possibility of reinvention, the possibility of possibilities. That being said, I like to lose myself in complicated or demanding texts. Because I enjoy being a little lost. 🙂 Digging out is part of the enjoyment. That might also explain my choice in lighter reads – mysteries. You have to dig out of those as well.

    • I love the idea of reinvention and of teh possibility of possibilities, oh damnation you have all put this so much better than I did hee hee.

      I am growing to like more demanding reads as whilst you are escaping its nice to be taken out fo your comfort zone and give your brain a good testing sometimes.

      As you know I also go the guilty pleasure way but after your brain has been taxed to the extreme you need something that simply envelops you.

  17. When I read fiction, I look for books that draw me in and just sweep me away. I don’t remember that it’s fiction I’m reading, and I’m the type of person who actually believes everything I read when I’m reading it. It’s only when I finish reading a book, and I think, now which parts were based on fact, and which ones weren’t? Oftentimes I find that the line between fact and fiction is very blurred in books I particularly enjoyed. It means the author did a great job in blending them together.

    And really, I don’t think there are any ‘lazy readers’. How can one be considered lazy if one actually reads?! =)

    • I normally don’t think about whether a book is based on reality or not and just read on ahead. Julys People was difficult and so it made me more aware of it and also for some reason for just this particular book I made the assumption it must be factual, why I do not honestly know. I also assumed something bad would happen and it didnt so that says even more about my reading assumptions.

  18. Nice post! So much to think about.

    For me, I tend to approach historical fiction in particular with a feeling of suspicion, and I want to know if and how the author departed from the history if real people are involved. I don’t necessarily mind such departures; I just like to know.

    And I’m perfectly happy to read a challenging book–to get mentally lost in what I’m reading. But I do need there to be rewards as well. Hard work is not in and of itself a reward. Ideally, it should be a means of forcing me, the reader, to focus or to absorb the story in a different way. If there’s a good reason for the experimental or difficult style, I’m in favor–if it just seems to be meant to seem more literary or something, I’m less enthusiastic.

    • I had a big phase of loving historical fiction and then went right off it for a very similar reason to you actually… I got suspicious. Then I read Wolf Hall and have become more open to it again but I want maybe more demanding reads than I was trying before.

      I agree about rewards in reading whatever they may be. Sometimes a single sentence can make me think ‘oh I am so pleased I read that book’ other times its the book as a whole.

  19. Expectations can be a killer, for me anyway. When I read a bit about a book, I get a vague sense in my head of what the book’s like, and then if it isn’t what I expect, I’m far less inclined to like it. I think I could maximize book enjoyment by either a) reading about books properly before I actually read them, or b) learning nothing at all about them before reading them.

    When it’s a difficult book, if I’ve not been warned it’s difficult and resolved ahead of time to dedicate attention to them, I’ll often give up in disgust. So as far as that goes, it’s better for me to know ahead of time if a book’s going to be a challenging read.

    • Expecations can indeed be a killer Jenny. I do tend to avoid reading a post about a book I havent read on someone else blog (I then break that rule on many occasion because i have incidentally heard lots about that book and want to hear from a voice I trust) as you naturally start to expect certain things out of it.

      Its interesting how being prepared for a challenging read makes it easier for you, I have never thought of that aspect of it before.

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  23. Coming a little late to the discussion but nevertheless I feel I want to add something about the trust I place in the author when I read. I will allow them to play a little with my preconceptions,challenge my opinions, take me to times and places I have never been and to leave a red herring or two along the way if it adds to the fun. If all the loose ends are tied before the end, that’s fine though I don’t mind if some are left dangling for me to work out for myself. But to create what seems like a completely real situation for me to fall into, hook line and sinker, only to wink sneakily on the last page that it was all a bit of a con leaves me feeling cross and cheated. By that, I’m referring to books like Memoirs of a Geisha (I was an early reader of that, before it was commonly known to be ficticious) and the Margaret Forster novel about a box of letters (apologies for forgetting the title) amongst others. As a reader, I’m placing my trust in the storyteller to fulfil their part of the deal, I suppose.

    Thanks for great NTTVBG discussions – I’m really enjoying them.

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