Sunday, March 15, 2015

Do you read for entertainment or other reasons?

Many would probably struggle to understand this question. What other possible reason could there be for reading a novel? It seems to be the case today that a brilliantly written book will not sell if it is not also entertaining.

I suppose it all depends on how broad is your definition of entertainment, but I suspect that for most people it is quite narrow. Entertainment, says the Macquarie Dictionary, refers to ‘something affording diversion or amusement.’ For a book to entertain it has to make the reader laugh or excite her; it has to keep him on the edge of his seat. Entertainment is about escapism. The need to escape is widespread these days, and why would that surprise us?

So where does this leave literature that confronts, moves, or even distresses the reader? Apart from some science fiction and fantasy novels, which I have usually read for entertainment, the book I have probably read most often over the years—one I have returned to at different stages in my development—is Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence. Is this an entertaining book? Almost certainly not. I read it and wrestle with it. I sometimes want to murder the lead male character, Paul, and am often not much more positively inclined towards one of the female leads, Miriam. I lose myself in the language, and I find myself struggling with the philosophy and ethics that the novel embodies.

Is this entertainment? Certainly not according to the dictionary definition. It is a much more profound and lasting experience than is suggested by the word ‘entertainment’.

More recently I read The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Was that entertaining? Surprisingly, at times it was. But it was also much, much more than that.

I am the same when it comes to movies. Of course, I will sometimes go to the cinema to be entertained. It’s more and more difficult not to, these days, since that seems the primary aim of movie makers. But the movies that have been most memorable for me have not necessarily been entertaining, in any sense of the word that I could imagine. Think of Sophie’s Choice. It’s not entertaining, but it is gut-wrenchingly moving, challenging and memorable.

I don’t mind when a book is entertaining. It is quite possible for a book to be both entertaining and something much more. What I look for in a book is something that makes me think, that moves me, that leaves a lasting impression, that may even be life changing. Writing and reading are about far more important things than entertainment, although they can be about that too.

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