Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Serial Reader (II)

As you remember, last week two weeks ago our hero was confronted by a dilemma: At the end of an exciting chapter should he immediately read on? Or should he stop and give the characters a chance to breathe?

To be honest, I generally choose to forge ahead with barely a pause. There is a degree of self control required to postpone resolution, and that is something that I often lack. If I am reading with other people then the appeal of sharing the story with them will provide enough incentive to wait (though it didn't always--for example take the way my entire family covertly finished books two and three of Harry Potter before actually reading the second half together). I also will wait (grumpily) if I forced to do so by the fact that the next chapter in a web comic or the next book in a series has not yet been published.

This tendency represents a disturbing lack of patience on my part. It appears that I want everything to happen to my convenience, immediately, and on demand. If there is intervening story, I don't mind anticipation and suspense because I am still engaged directly. But to pull away from the characters? Not a chance!

I recently read Brandon Sanderson's breathtaking The Way of Kings, book one of the anticipated ten-book Stormlight Archive. It is 1000 pages long, and I read it in three sittings over four days. Well, technically four sittings since I took a rather extended break for lunch on day two. Not only did I ignore puny speed bumps like chapter endings, but I vaulted across much more functional divides between the novel's five "books" and the "interludes" between them. It was delicious and exhilarating!

And yet, though I was completely invested in the story throughout, I feel like I lost something by reading so quickly. The characters met with obstacle after obstacle over weeks and months. They had to struggle with moral dilemmas, with uncertainty, and with indecision. At one point I realized that in the previous three hours the primary character had gone through four defining arcs, and the middle two had meant very little to me because in my mind he had already moved on to the next and the next. In my eagerness to see him through to the end, I had sacrificed the depth of his experience. I knew what had happened, but because I had not stopped at the book or chapter breaks to reflect, I had missed the impact.

And isn't that what life is like? A whole lot of time passes between events, and we must wait between the time that a decision is made and the effects begin to appear. I have impatiently waited for new chapters of my life to begin, wondering why there was all this empty space before the story could continue. But these chapter breaks are necessary: we must learn to value this breathing space, a new epigraph, and the opportunity to look both back and ahead--even when it takes an uncomfortably long time.

I have been described as a "serial reader" more than once. The name was meant to convey that I move quickly through a lot of material. But there is another, more literal meaning that harks back to the origins of novels. Once, everything was serialized and time to reflect was built in between episodes. I have decided that I need to reform, to incorporate some level of this second meaning into my approach to reading. The reader has a responsibility, in the interest of his or her own experience of the story, to step away from the narrative before continuing. I don't know yet where that balance lies for me, but I have a lot of chapters ahead to try to discover it.

(This post has focused on the responsibilities of the reader with respect to chapter breaks. Authors also have important responsibilities in this, which will be the subject of a future post.)

1 comment:

  1. And yet we can't pull away from life, even if we think we need a chapter break to sort things out. Our story keeps unfolding--sometimes with sidetracks or a slower pace, but never with a break in the story.