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"Better" vs. More Enjoyable Reading

Last week I posted a few thoughts about how book reviewing has affected my reading. I said that "since I've been writing book reviews over the past year, I've become a better reader", and enumerated what I meant by better. This is apparently a phenomenon that other bloggers have noticed, because it sparked a flurry of discussion:

  • In the comments of the original post.
  • At Snapshot, where Jennifer asked her visitors about what they like to read in a review, and sparked some discussion of her own.
  • At Scholar's Blog, where Michele really took the topic and ran with it. Michele in particular addressed the issue of whether or not reading more critically is incompatible with enjoying the reading. She also discussed potential elitism issues in talking about being a "better" reader.
  • Plus referrals from Chicken Spaghetti and Journey Woman (Thanks!)

I don't want to beat the topic to death, but I did want to come back and talk a bit more about a couple of particular issues. Nancy asked me "Do you enjoy the books as much as you used to? More? And I mean enjoy, rather than appreciate."

Without spending a lot of time to think about it, I responded that "book reviewing has taken something away from my enjoyment of the books. I don't get as lost in them as I used to. Or at least it doesn't happen (the getting lost) quite so often. It still does happen with the best of the books that I'm reading, but I have to come up for air more often to write something down."

Gregory K. then challenged me on two points. He questioned whether I could call myself a "better" reader rather than a "different" reader, because it seemed like I was putting a value judgment on reading, and potentially putting down people who read purely for pleasure. He also asked how I could call myself a "better" reader if I enjoy it less. He requested an answer in 50 words or less, but I actually spent some time thinking about this over the weekend, and would like to elaborate beyond my designated 50 words.

First of all, of course I didn't mean to imply anything negative about anyone who reads for pleasure, and doesn't write book reviews. Outside of school books, I chose my reading material solely for my own satisfaction for more than 30 years, before starting my blog. I still choose what I want to read. I think that everyone has the right to read whatever and however they like, with no judgments from anyone else. And I apologize if my remarks seemed judgmental to anyone.

My comments applied to changes that I had noticed in my own reading. They are not necessarily applicable to anyone else (though some of the commenters did agree with various points). That said, I do defend my choice of the word "better", but with the caveat that "better" applies only to my own comparison with my previous self.

I think that if I'm reading more carefully, and getting more out of the books, and even forcing myself to slow down a bit, then I'm doing a better job at reading. If I was a quilter, I would want to improve my craft, and my ability to match colors, and the evenness of my stitches. If I was passionate about cooking then I would expect to expand my repertoire of dishes, and learn about new ingredients. If I was training for a marathon, I would expect my speed and endurance to increase, and I would consider those changes to be improvements. I think that it's natural to get better at something when one puts a lot of time and energy into it.

I also think that I can simultaneously become better at something, while not necessarily enjoying it more. I remember some people mentioning during Mother Reader's 48 Hour Book Challenge that trying to read as much as possible during a short time period sort of turned it into a job. This took some of the joy out of the reading for them. I think that book reviewing has done this for me on a larger scale, turning my reading into a job of sorts. It's still a job that I love. It's one that I choose to do with essentially no compensation because I am passionate about it. But there's a bit more responsibility attached to it than there was when I was 12 years old and reading up in a tree in my backyard. Or than there was a year ago when only a couple of friends had even the slightest interest in what I was reading.

I get a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction out of writing book reviews, and out of engaging in discussion with other kid lit bloggers. I am thrilled when someone tells me that my review, of a book that I loved, inspired them to want to read it. I am honored when an author tells me that I picked up on something that he or she was trying to do in a book. I think that by writing reviews, I get more out of what I'm reading, and I do enjoy writing them. But I will admit that a tiny little piece of that unfettered childhood joy in reading has been lost along the way. So far, I consider the trade-off well worth it, and I think that in my life as a reader, I am better off. But that's just how it's working for me.

Thanks, Greg, Nancy, Michele, Susan, and Jennifer, and everyone else who commented on the original post. Bonny Becker mentioned that her life as a writer has made it more difficult to get lost in books the way she used to, while Michele proclaimed her increased enjoyment of books since acquiring an English degree. Colleen Mondor offered her solution to the "reading for fun" issue, which she says is to "always have one book going off my TBR pile that is only for me. I might blog about it, but not at all in a formal review." Clearly, everyone has a slightly different experience with book reviewing vs. reading for enjoyment. But I think that it's been a great discussion, and it's given me a lot to think about going forward. Thanks!

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.