Why Do The Books We Love (Or Hate) Matter So Much To Us?

One of the two book groups I belong to consists of lawyers. (Yes, who knows why we set it up that way, but we did.) In the non-lawyer group, the participants express strong personal views about liking or disliking a book, a character, the writing style, the plot, etc., and usually listen with interest to others’ impressions. The lawyer-readers comment on the same aspects of the books but are a lot more apt to pound the table and insist a particular book or author is excellent or horrible. The intense debates led me to wonder why people react so strongly, and yet in such different ways, to the same books, particularly novels. In the end, novels consist of words on a page (or, these days, on a handheld device) about people who don’t exist and events that never happened, at least not in the way depicted in the fictional world. So why does how they are written and what happens in them hit people, even ones in the same profession who live in the same geographic area, in such very different ways?

Some of the varying reactions, I suspect, arise from differences in why people choose to read and what they hope to gain from the experience. Here are a few of the motives and goals I’ve observed:

To Decode The Text:  I have a running dispute with one of the lawyer book group participants about what is and isn’t good writing. In one novel (literary–not mystery or suspense), she said she reread a scene three times to figure out the identity of a character referred to only by the pronoun “she.” My book group companion felt a sense of accomplishment upon determining that “she” meant the main character’s mother. To me, it’s just plain bad writing if it takes multiple readings to know who is in the room in a particular scene. But to others, including many critics, a book that requires the reader to parse out phrases, reexamine passages, and devise for herself what actually happened on the page is more interesting and engaging than one that sweeps the reader into a clear narrative with characters that, as written and without in-depth fill-in-the-blanks by the reader, are well-developed.

To Go Along For The Ride:  I read for plot and character. This means that, for the most part, I both read and write genre fiction. My favorite books are ones that tell a compelling story and offer a significant theme or help me learn more about some part of the world or history or culture. But to get to the learning part, I first want a story and a character (or characters) who grab me on page one. This is partly because my law career involves reading convoluted case law and, often, insurance policies (yes, it’s an exciting practice), so when I read for pleasure, I don’t want to struggle. I want to escape. Suspense, thrillers, horror, mystery–all the genres I love tend to grab the reader on page one and pull her or him into the world of the story immediately. On the other hand, I tend to avoid fantasy and to a lesser extent, science fiction, because I become impatient with the time many sci fi and fantasy authors spend building the new worlds before getting to the story. Which is a bit ironic given that my Awakening series generally does well with science fiction readers, though it’s not strictly sci fi. But I get to the story on page one, and I did a great deal of editing with the aim of folding in the background information the reader needs without slowing the story.

To Learn Through The Book:  People loved The Da Vinci Code because it was a page turner, but also because, while racing through the plot, they learned a lot about aspects of Christianity and Catholicism that were unfamiliar to them. The book addressed how the role of women in the Christian movement was obscured and diminished as it became a more organized religion. (Interesting side note–the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a non-fiction book which the authors asserted had a central theme that The Da Vinci Code drew from, sued the publisher of the novel. They were not successful.) Brown is particularly good at weaving background information into the plot without the reader feeling like she’s sitting in a lecture, despite that sometimes his main character Professor Langdon literally gives lectures. In auditoriums. I appreciate an author who can do that well. For many years, James Michener was popular in part because a reader could learn so much about history by reading his novels. I could never get through one, though, as I wanted the story to start sooner than page 100 (see above, To Go Along For The Ride).

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To Learn Because Of The Book:  When the lawyer book group read The Three Musketeers, the book group member I mentioned above pulled out atlases, a French dictionary, and Google to understand where exactly the events took place and additional details about the historical and geographic context. She loves books that are enhanced by outside research, and I admire her for that. I’ve become a rather lazy reader and am inclined to move forward and pick up what I can from the context of the novel without doing anything extra. If I’m particularly interested, I might research when I’m finished. For instance, I read a suspense novel by Alexandra Sokoloff, The Unseen, that incorporated certain types of ESP cards and testing. I had read a non-fiction book about that as a teenager, so I did some research on the Internet to find out how much of what was in the novel was historical fact. I also sometimes research later to find the factual underpinnings of a book for my own education as a writer. Now that I’m writing full time and practicing law only part-time, I plan to do that more often, both for fun and to analyze other authors’ efforts.

To Find Kindred Spirits:  I recently read a scathing comment by a literary critic about readers who prefer likeable characters. The critic said it was a sad thing if a person needed to find friends in books. I disagree (no doubt because I find friends in books). There are characters I return to again and again because I admire them and enjoy their company. While as readers, we know the characters and events in novels aren’t “real” in the sense of being alive and breathing, if they speak to us, we feel that the author, at least, understood something about who we are and how life appears to us. We’ve all had times when it seems as if we’re the only person in the world who has felt a certain way or been through a difficult experience. Sometimes, through books, we can discover that at least someone else has been there, too. Also, there are times we can’t sort out our feelings, and stepping into the shoes of a character who is in the same position can help us do that. After my parents’ deaths were caused by a drunk driver, I often felt too angry and overwhelmed to talk with others. Reading offered me a safe place to explore my feelings and deal with pain.

To Better Understand Others:  A book with well-developed characters–ones whose motives, feelings, and previous life experience are explored–allows the reader to step into someone else’s shoes for a little while or, more accurately, into someone else’s mind and heart. I love when I feel that, in reading, I almost become someone else temporarily, and see through that person’s eyes. I can only meet so many people in life, and most of them will never share their inmost feelings with me. In a novel, I see things from other perspectives and get glimpses into how the world looks to someone other than me. When you think about it, this is really the basis of nearly all advocacy, whether it’s legal or political or otherwise. There’s a reason politicians use anecdotes about welfare queens or Joe the Plumber–story resonates in a way that facts and figures do not.

To Be Inspired:  Both fiction and non-fiction offer a chance to live through or follow people we admire. One of my favorite fictional characters is female private eye V.I. Warshawski (for more on this, see Why I Love V.I.). I admire her determination, courage, and loyalty. She inspired me to leave the large firm where I worked and start my own law practice because I so enjoyed seeing how she worked for herself and ran her business. (I did not want to get hit on the head or be near death quite as often as V.I., so I opted not to become a private detective.) Reading about people and characters I admire is a big part of why I love novels, and why I’m not a fan of books that are mainly about people who struggle through the entire book and fail entirely or who are the types of people I’d avoid in real life.

To Impose Order On The Universe:  For a similar reason, I like horror, suspense, and thrillers because, usually, the protagonist prevails in the end. The victory may not be complete, but there is generally some sort of justice and a semblance of order is restored in the universe. This appeals to me precisely because I already know life is hard and terrible things happen. I can read that in the news every day. In fiction, I want there to be order and a progression toward a goal, however rocky the path. In that sense, I am very much a devotee of Ayn Rand’s view of fiction–that it should depict humans as they might be and ought to be. I want a book to have a hero.

To Feel Less Alone:  My love for heroes and order sometimes puts me at odds with those who prefer books about significantly dysfunctional people or families. What appeals to me as imposing order on a chaotic universe strikes other readers as too pollyannaish (I checked, that’s a word). In the way that someone bubbling over with cheer at five a.m. is obnoxious to the non-morning person who got up early solely to catch a flight, the resolution and order I seek, that makes me feel less adrift in the universe, can grate on those who prefer more realism in fiction. Conversely, books that leave me ready to slit my wrists can comfort someone else. Both types of book can make the reader feel less alone, but which book does that for a particular reader can vary widely.

To Explore Issues:  There’s a reason preachers often speak in parables. As I noted above, storytelling can provide an engaging vehicle for exploring social issues or advocating causes. If it’s done well, without preaching, it can change minds. My own views on gun control modified slightly after reading many of Dean Koontz’s books. It’s not that I thought I’d ever be in the situations that his protagonists face. But his often-used premise of the individual against the worst elements of government illustrated for me why many people fear a world where only the police and authorities can access guns, as there’s no doubt that authority can be abused and that many governments oppress people. Some of Koontz’s books are a bit heavy handed for me, and I’ll probably never become an NRA member. But his narratives provided a perspective I otherwise lacked. Likewise, being a United States city dweller, reading stories set in other parts of the U.S. and in other countries helps me see why there are such vast political divisions over many issues. It’s hard to understand a completely different political mindset while knowing next to nothing about the day-to-day life of anyone who holds it. Fiction and creative non-fiction can help remedy that.

To Escape:  I read about a study years ago that said that people who read fiction in hospital waiting rooms are less stressed and more able to cope with their reason for being there than those who read non-fiction or don’t read at all. No matter what types of novels a person reads, fiction offers an escape. It’s a chance to step away from day-to-day life and be absorbed in another place and time.

To Connect With Other People:  As my membership in two book groups shows, not only do many people love to read, they love to attend book groups. Books offer a chance to connect to one another, whether it’s over sharing a love of the same book or character or to conduct a passionate debate about the merits or demerits of a work. Throwing in a glass or two of wine and/or a good dinner adds to the fun and the ambience. Regardless of disagreements, the shared love of fiction brings people together.

What pulls all of these reasons–and I’m sure I missed many–together for me is that while we may read for different reasons, fiction fulfills deep human needs. No wonder we sometimes passionately defend or advocate for our book choices.

What about you? Why do you read, and what differences have you noticed in your likes and dislikes versus those of your fellow and sister readers?

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you’d like to be notified of new releases and read reviews on M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller), click here to join her email list