November 22, 2004

Getting Lost In A Good Book

The Forager has a typically lengthy and interesting post on the topic of getting taken out of a book by something strange the author does. It's an experience I'm perfectly familiar with: you're reading the book, utterly lost in the story, and then some character does something completely out of character and you say, "Huh? Where did that come from?" And the magic is gone, for the moment at least, and you're out of the book.

Consequently, I was rather surprised when the Forager quoted a number of clearly literate and intelligent people, book-lovers all, who have no idea what it means to be lost in a book. As one says,

But people talk about being immersed in the story, forgetting they're reading a book or watching a movie. That can't be what they mean. How could they really forget that they're scanning a sequence of words (or images) on a page, or that they're watching a sequence of images projected on a screen?

The Forager's diagnosis is straightforward:

I think what is underlying what both Steven and Dave are saying is their belief that being truly engaged with a work of art means analyzing and interpreting it. I even get a sense that they feel that an audience has a kind of moral imperative to analyze and interpret a work of art, or that this kind of analysis and interpretation is morally superior to old-fashioned “appreciation” of art works.

And I think it's clear that if you can only approach a book as an analyst, rather than as an old-fashioned reader-of-tales, you're going to have trouble getting lost in it. The Forager then describes getting taken out of a book as follows:

...saying “X took me out of the story” isn’t so much about breaking “suspension of disbelief” or puncturing an illusionist surface as it is about an audience member feeling that the art maker has broken the rules of a game they were playing or that the art maker has failed to properly set up or cue a change in these rules.

He goes on about this at some length; it's worth reading, and I think he's correct. But there's a real psychological aspect to this that I think he's missing. If you ask me to describe what it's like to be lost in a book, I might well say that while lost in a book I forget that I'm reading a book--but while forgetting is involved, it's not the book that's forgotten by myself. While lost in a book I am in a blissful state of unselfconsciousness. The book's contents is dramatically present, and I am so fully engaged with it that I vanish and all that remains is the story.

I sometimes have a similar experience while deeply engaged in a programming project. It's sometimes called "flow," or being "in the zone," and it's a remarkably pleasant state. I say "remarkably" because the pleasure is only obvious in retrospect--being a state of unselfconsciousness, you can't only reflect upon it without leaving it.

So what happens when the author "takes me out of the book"? Simply, he has done something in the text which causes me to remember myself as myself, sitting and reading his book, where before I was fully engaged in his world and not thinking of myself at all.

Now, it's certainly true that various auctorial hi-jinks and blunders can distract me from the text in a purely analytical sense. But that's certainly not what I mean by being "taken out of the book"--though, in all fairness, I might also use that phrase for occasions when I certainly would have been taken out of the book if I had in fact been so fortunate as to be lost in it.

Anyway, if the critics the Forager quotes really don't know what it means to be lost in a book, they have all my sympathy.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 22, 2004 06:31 PM

J.W. Hastings said:

Will,

Thanks for the link and thanks for bringing up the psychological dimension that I left out. Playing sports can lead to the same kind of feeling "in the zone." All these cases seem to point towards a kind of altered (heightened?) state of consciousness while enagaged in the activity.

all the best,
J.W.

Will Duquette said:

On a related note, C.S. Lewis' comments on the Christian virtue of humility come to mind. He rejects the usual notion (that being humble means thinking badly of yourself, or, worse, pretending to think worse of yourself than you really do; instead, he says that true humility is a kind of forgetfulness of self. That makes sense to me, especially in this context--how can you really appreciate a story if you do not approach it with humility, that is, with a willingness to let it do its thing?

And this speaks to the problem I have in reading books specifically to review them--my inner analyst is fully awake from page one, and I have trouble approaching them with humility.

What this says about professional critics, I shall leave as an exercise for the reader.