Sunday, 5 June 2011

I am not a Passive Reader.

As Erica Wagner said in yesterday's Times, I don't like disagreeing with Kate Atkinson, who is one of my favourite authors and a writer whose intelligence I respect, but when she says as she did in that selfsame publication that reading is a passive activity I simply have to take issue.  The actual quote, taken from a piece marking the move of Jackson Brodie to the television screen this evening was this,

People like to think that there’s some synergy between reading and writing but there isn’t. Writing is a very active act and reading is passive and that’s seen as a negative thing: people don’t want to be seen to be passive. They want to feel engaged and involved in the process but they’re not. They’re reading something that would exist even if the reader didn’t.

Don't worry, I'm not going to get into the whole reader-response question here.  I know that the book sitting by my side at the moment would still exist even if I didn't.  But, even without wandering into the realms of literary theory, I'm afraid I think she is just plain wrong.  Whatever else reading is it isn't passive.  Or if it is then it has stopped being a worthwhile occupation because all you are doing is letting the words pass through your mind without engaging with them in any way and you might just as well fill the space up with so much cotton wool.

Any child in the process of learning how to read will tell you that reading is damned hard work.  The fact that so many of us manage to master the art to the point where we no longer notice that fact is a tribute to a lot more hard work put in by teachers of one sort or another all over the world.  But once you've reached that point and you don't notice the work you're putting in any more what you're doing is still not passive; what is more it is perfectly possible for it to be active in a different way every single time you pick a book up.

This past week I've read four books each of which has asked me to engage actively with it in an entirely different way.  One has an extremely complex plot located in a slightly off kilter world which demands that I follow every twist and turn in an unfamiliar setting without letting a single ball drop if I want to have a hope of understanding how the final denouement fits logically with what has gone before.

A second has engaged me in an emotional manner that has demanded that I empathise with characters I might not normally respond to and come to some understanding of why they have behaved as they have and why I might possibly be able to follow their reasoning if not ever applaud their choices.

The third and fourth are both books where I have been struck immediately by the fact that the writers are women of tremendous intelligence and I have struggled, as I read their novels, to keep up with the ideas that their minds have woven into extremely readable books.  But even here what I have been working at has been different.  In one of these it has been the ideas themselves that have kept me on my toes, the writers that this author has assumed I would know and the way in which their concepts have fed into the story she is telling.  In the other is has been the style that has had me thinking, deceptively simply and yet expressed in language so distilled that unpacking all the layers of meaning has been a tremendous challenge.  Working out how she has managed it would be another task in itself.

So, I'm afraid I have to disagree with Kate Atkinson.  For me the very essence of the pleasure that is reading is the fact that it isn't passive, that I have to work at it if I want to get anything out of it.  And the day it becomes a passive, time filling activity is the day I will burn my library cards and go out and shot myself.


  1. Hmm, I see watching television as my passive activity and reading as something I engage in. Whereas I can follow a television programme with just the slightest attention and still enjoy it, to get something out of a book, you're right, you have to work for it. The reason reading is declining is because a lot of people don't fancy making the effort and would rather wait for it to come out on DVD or something. That says a lot to me and definitely not that it's a passive activity.

  2. I have seen (read) several objections to this comment (and also read the profile concerned in the print Times). I have a policy of never believing anything I read in an interview - there are so many confounding factors, eg the mood of the day, the inevitable cutting down of the conversation to fit the space, how the interviewer wants to slant things, the subediting, etc. If she'd written it herself I'd be more interested, as she would probably have clarified it - or at least it would have been her directly rather than filtered through someone else.

    That having been said, I do think that reading is essentially a consumer activity whereas writing is a creative one. Lots of people write books who really should not (especially now with all these wretched poorly written, non-edited ebooks), but a good writer is doing something infinitely different from a reader consuming the content.
    (Disclaimer, I am a reading addict and have been since the age of about 3. I am now about 93 ;-). I rarely watch TV, if I do it is not live TV but something I've chosen to consume in my own time, just like a book;-) .)

  3. I suppose reading can be as active or as passive as you want to make it. Maybe for some people it's just a way to pass the time, but I personally like to be drawn into the story and form an emotional involvement with the characters, so for me reading doesn't feel like a passive activity at all. If I find I'm just staring at the words without engaging with them, I usually take that as a sign that it's time to put that book down and read something else instead!

  4. CL, television certainly is far more passive as far as I'm concerned. I always find that when I'm really tired I can still watch the television but reading is beyond me.

    Maxine, I'm not sure I agree with you that reading is a consumer activity. I think it often demands an interpretative act that is not completely dissimilar to that of the musician. However, I am definitely with you about those appalling self-published e-books. Urrrh!

    Helen, you are right that reading can just be a way of filling space. If I find that happening then I know there's something wrong with me.

  5. Physically passive and mentally passive are two entirely different things. Even in books that are barely worth reading, I often learn something, agree or disagree, have an Aha moment, decide to do some research, or re-evaluate a long held belief.

    The better the book, the more engaged the brain. I may be quite still physically, but usually my mental processes are all firing.

  6. It can be a choice whether to read passively or actively / creatively, I think. Some books seem designed to be passed over lightly (formulaic, no surprises, no ideas, no big words!) but even then there are contexts and questions that can change up our relationship to them. Some TV shows are quite complex and reward active attention too. It's OK to be passive sometimes (we all need to relax!) but basically I'm with Elizabeth Bowen when she says "it becomes an enormity, inside the full-sized body, to read without the brain."

  7. I remember reading that it takes a child around 2,000 hours to learn to read (more if s/he hasn't got reading-out-loud parents) so it is certainly a tough skill to acquire. And it takes many many more hours of practice to be able to read in a critical way, aware both of the story you are being told, and of the other stories lurking behind it. So it is a full brain activity. I find now that I read critically (not judgmentally, more being fully aware of all front and back stories as I go along) no matter what the book is. Okay, apart from Agatha Christie, where I love just following where she takes me.

    But to hop on the theory train very briefly, Roland Barthes tried to separate out passive reading from active (or 'writerly' he called it) reading, and found that even Balzac, his example of passive reading par excellence, had active reading moments in it. And conversely no text was so experimental as to be without its moments of passive reading. So I don't think we can ever say that reading is a properly passive task.

  8. Rohan, you seem determined to make me break my vow and spend money on books I haven't got time to read at the moment! With everything you say about Bowen I feel I have to have her non-fiction work at the very least.

    Litlove, stop sending chills down my back. Every year there was at least one student who failed completely to grasp the concept of writerly reading, possibly because they didn't engaging in it! But I do think Barthes is correct.

  9. While there are some books that are so undemanding that they do not ask the reader to do much of anything at all, I think for the m ost part reading is active. It might not look like someone who is reading is doing anything but I bet the brain is all lit up and busy, busy, busy.

  10. Hello Annie,

    I'm going to try out my errant Google account again, as it seems to working fine on most other sites now.

    I believe that almost all activities can be either active or passive, depending on the state of mind, or mood I am in.

    On the whole, I have to agree that you can only get the most out of a book,if you are actively engaged with it. However on occasion, I can find myself having read a book without really giving much thought to it at all.

    The same can be said for television, although I don't really watch much lately. Some programmes are almost background noise that just washes over me, whilst some demand my full attention and active participation to get the most out of them.

    Listening to music is another pursuit that can be both active or passive, although I never read when listening to music. For me, the ideal way, in fact the only way, is to be completely quiet when reading and preferably alone. For me, reading is a solitary experience.


  11. I worry that I do read too passively. One of the reasons that I started writing a blog was to be more conscious of what I was reading and more engaged with it.

  12. Stefanie, it would be interesting to actually see brain scans of what is going on when you're reading. I bet you're right about it being lit up like a beacon.

    Yvonne, lots of people seem to be having problems with the blogspot system at the moment. The trouble is there doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason as to when those problems hit. I think you're right about the active/passive debate effecting other art forms as well. I know I am guilty of passively experiencing music far too often.

    Joanne, I read your blog, I know you don't have to worry!

  13. Interesting post and interesting comments. Like Joanne I sometimes worry that I am a little too passive when I read--reading more for story than for noting how an author is writing or what he's trying to do--though I am trying to be better at that (while also just enjoying the story). As a matter of fact I was going to go back to your Room post and see if you had written about narrative voice somewhere as I was curious to know more or if I understood what you mean....but I also don't think reading is a purely passive exercise as you have to engage with the work to understand what's going on--follow the action and make connections. I can do something else when I watch TV--needlework or something, but when I'm reading that's *all* I'm doing as I need all my attention there on the book.

  14. Danielle, I don't think reading for story is necessary passive. If you are watching every twist and turn of a complicated plot and then coming to your own conclusions about the way it is developing, that takes real thought.

  15. I find that an astonishing thing for Atkinson to have said, particularly given some of her early books which surely demanded reader engagement and response. I wonder if she really meant it the way it comes across? Maybe she's defining "passive" in a different way, though I can't imagine defining it in any way that would really make sense in this context. It reminds me a little of Marshall Mc Luhan's hot and cool media and how that never really quite rang true to me either!