Jane TompkinsBy Jane Tompkins

This week the book I intended to review turned out to be a dud, so instead I thought I’d write about how we decide what to read. My experience as a reader has taught me that I read for many different reasons. There’s reading I do for practical purposes—learning a new skill, familiarizing myself with a place I’m going to visit, trying to understand an illness that I or someone I love has. In those instances, it’s easy to decide what to read; the choices are obvious. But usually I read for reasons that are less easily formulated and of which I’m often unaware: to take my mind off something that’s bothering me (not always a good idea), to relax and calm myself down, for entertainment or excitement, to be exposed to new experiences, to learn about something I’ve always wanted to know, for companionship, for comfort, for inspiration. These reasons frequently overlap. But I’ve noticed that I’m not always so good at figuring out what book will fit my need at a given moment and end up getting the opposite result from what I’m looking for.

For example, this morning I was reading a mystery novel—I wasn’t feeling well and needed simply to relax. It didn’t take much concentration, it didn’t demand anything of me in the way of thought, so it should have been fine. But soon I noticed I was getting upset. The author kept inserting chapters from the villain’s point of view—that of a serial killer who, before the novel opens, has already killed four people without being detected, and plots to kill and then, before our eyes, does kill a fifth person—someone I’d gotten to know and sympathize with who was dreading being killed. Awful. I realized at this point I ought to stop, but I read on. The killer starts planning his next two murders—his intended victims are the novel’s protagonist and his girlfriend, both of whom I’d identified with—and has actually begun to shadow them before I put the book down. Enough. I was reading the wrong thing. I needed to feel happy and unstressed, and instead my anxiety was going through the roof.

The experience reminded me that too often I’m on automatic pilot when I read, and let myself be led, emotionally, into situations that I’d much rather not be in. When I need to read something in order to calm down, what do I do? Well, often I pick up a book I’ve already started just because it’s there, or because I think I should finish it before starting something else. Mistake. It’s better to figure out what kind of book I need at that moment, and if it’s not available, do something else that will fulfill the same purpose. It’s easy to make your state of mind worse rather than better by picking up the wrong kind of book. A lot of the reading we do, we do because we think we should, perhaps because reading is associated with school—the place most of us learned to read, where we had to read what we were told. When it comes to choosing books, I’ve had to teach myself over the years to pay attention to what my body and spirit are inclining to rather than be governed by some idea I’ve had for a long time—such as, that I should know more about the Peloponnesian Wars, or that I shouldn’t read a book by a popular writer just because it makes me feel good. Sometimes Danielle Steele—or whoever is your equivalent for her—is exactly the right thing. Sometimes it’s Marcel Proust. Don’t worry if your inner critic disapproves. The right book at the right time is good; what matters is not the book itself but whether it’s aligned with what your soul desires. The value of a book depends upon the situation.

When I was teaching a full load of courses at Temple University, commuting two and a half hours each way from Baltimore to Philadelphia and back, stretching my energy to the limit, I loved reading the novels of Louis L’Amour, the world’s most popular writer of Westerns. The reason was that his stories celebrate hard work and endurance: His heroes have to survive harsh weather, go without food and water for prolonged periods, endure pain, and face death in order to achieve their goals. Undergoing their trials gave me a feeling of reward and satisfaction: I, too, could prevail against the odds; I, too, could stay the course and not give up. I enjoyed the experience so much that I ended up writing a book on Western novels and films. (It’s called West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, should you want to check it out).

Another way of saying what I’m saying is: Reader, know thyself! If a book gives you enjoyment, stick with it, no matter what anyone says. If a book makes you feel scared or downhearted, or is dull as dishwater, put it down. When it comes to reading, it’s good to be your own doctor. That way, you’ll be sure you’re taking the right medicine.!

Jane would like to hear from her readers: