Reading for Exhilaration (Amy K. Nichols)

I love books. Love books. But I've never really considered before how I read them.

A friend of mine, also a writer, reads very deliberately, a book in one hand, a pencil in the other. She dissects pages, paragraphs, sentences. She analyzes word choice and sentence progression. When I hear her talk about her reading process, I marvel. I don't read this way. Not with novels, at least.

I do analyze short stories. They're short, you see, and I can hold their entirety in my head. Taking a pencil to a short story like a surgeon wields a scalpel isn't as daunting as my friend's novel dissections. With a short story, I typically read it through once for pleasure and a second time (or more) to figure out what the author did and how.

But novels are a different animal, for me at least. Novels are for being swallowed up by, for getting lost in, for escape and exploration and adventure. When it comes to novels, I read for exhilaration. I'm looking to be wowed. I read in anticipation of the gasp -- the moment the story takes my breath away.

When that happens, then I'll go back (either in that moment or later, if the story is too gripping to put down) and look at how the author worked his or her magic. That's what reading is for me: a kind of magic. I really have no agenda other than to be swept up and carried away.

Most of the time the gasp comes from the events of the story itself. A recent scene that took my breath away was in Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I don't want to give any spoilers, so I'll just  sum it up with two words: water bucket. Wow. That gave me goosebumps. I literally gasped. Then I set the book down in my lap and took a minute to contemplate the event, its impact on the story and on me as a reader.

Sometimes, though, the gasp is over a technique an author used. I'm currently reading The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, and came across a passage that wowed me as a writer. (I can expound on this one without fear of giving anything away.) The protagonist tells a story to his friends, and the story is given its own chapter. During the telling, the protagonist's friends interrupt, asking questions and arguing a finer point of the story. Rothfuss handles their intrusion with several lines of italicized, unattributed, quotation-marks free dialogue. In a simple, unobtrusive way, the reader is reminded that the chapter is the telling of a story within a story (within another story, actually), as well as reminded that there are people other than the reader "listening" the tale, and that those others have their own opinions, questions, reactions. It's brilliant. It impressed me in a different way than the passage from Ocean at the End of the Lane, but it impressed me nonetheless. As a writer, I learned from that reading.

Sometimes I wonder if I should slow down and analyze books deliberately, like my friend does. My writing would probably benefit from such study, as I'm sure hers has (her writing is gorgeous!). My fear, though, is that my joy of reading would suffer, and that just isn't something I'm willing to sacrifice. Reading for exhilaration, relying on the Gasp Method, may not be the most scientific way of reading, but I've found it's what works for me.


  1. My two favorite "gasp" moments for plot:
    the moment in A Tale of Two Cities when we find out what Mme Defarge has been knitting.
    the moment in Invitation to a Beheading when we discover what M'sieur Pierre does for a living.
    I have all sorts of gasp moments over technique, and recognition of true statements. I just finished reading April Henry's The Night She Disappeared, and there was a part in there about "reading words," which are words that we know from reading, but don't use in everyday speech because people will think we're being too formal or fancy. I knew exactly what she meant, but had never seen it put quite that way before!

  2. I'm guessing your friend is an English major/instructor? I know that I read books like that if it's for my dissertation, but it's less fun for me that way because I'm studying the book rather than just enjoying it. It's much easier to enter the author/the characters' world if I immerse myself in the book, like you said.

  3. I'm wondering if it's even possible for me to truly analyze a book I love--since by definition, books I love are the ones I totally fall into. There may be actual science involved in this-- see the brilliant book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron.

  4. I GOTTA read Gaiman's OCEAN. I DID read WIRED FOR STORY--I agree. Totally brilliant.

  5. I read the same way. I go back in my mind later and flip through my thoughts but ultimately I just do a face plant into the pages.

  6. I read just to read to read. If I analyzed as I read, then reading would be homework and escaping in books is a joy I want to keep. :-)


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