Reading Good Books: What’s the Point?

By Hannah Brockhaus

Nina Hale via flickr under CC license w/ attribution:

As a scholarly press, the Truman State University Press does not produce books that I would consider my go-to summer beach reads. A good number of the Press’s books fall within very specialized fields and are written for the purpose of contributing to a field of knowledge and to the education of scholars in that area—not necessarily with the goal of giving pleasure, or entertaining the reader, such as a Stephen King novel might.

But as both a student, and someone who loves to read, I wonder why these two purposes must be at odds? Why isn’t it just as possible to derive pleasure from learning more about the folk tradition of noodling, or by reading about the effect of war on soldiers in the poetry of a veteran, as from a book from the popular fiction rack?

While it may not be the same kind of pleasure, I think there can still be enjoyment in it.

Anna Holmes, an award-winning writer who has written for The Washington Post, Newsweek and The New Yorker online, recently contributed to The New York Times Sunday Book Review column called “Bookends.” Running across the column, I was drawn in by the question she was asked to debate: whether pleasure in reading is of trivial or vital importance. Holmes wrote:

But what is “reading for pleasure,” really? Does it mean burying oneself only in books or other forms of written material guaranteed to induce feelings of amusement or delight or serenity? Does it mean that pleasure is the point, rather than the pleasurable byproduct?

While reading about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq is not necessarily something pleasurable, there is something to be gained from increasing in understanding of another person and another time and place. The byproduct is the sort of pleasure you gain from knowing or understanding something you didn’t before.

When I first read Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and as I approached the end, a friend asked me how it was. When I told her that it was the most emotionally difficult book I had ever read she was surprised because it appeared that I couldn’t put it down. Two years later and I still remember scenes vividly; the characters were all so imperfectly human, it made me think of many issues, and aspects of my own life, in a different way.

For me, there was pleasure in the challenge of that book, in the way that it stretched me and made me think. The pleasure of learning and achievement is a pleasure that is lasting.

As Mortimer J. Adler writes in How to Read a Book, “Good books are over your head; they would not be good for you if they were not. And books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself up to their level.”

I can easily get lost in a paperback mystery for a weekend, but it’s a similar encounter to the one I might have with the hairstylist. I know a few things about her life and I enjoy our interactions, but in an hour or so she moves on to a new client and I go on with the rest of my day. Our effect on each other has little lasting significance.

Working your way through a “good book”—though difficult in content or language—changes you.

Truman State University Press strives to offer the scholarly community and the reading public many different options of good books, including many different poetry and contemporary nonfiction titles. Browsing our books by category shows a diverse range in both subject matter and style, so there’s something for everyone.

For me, I know that this summer I won’t be afraid to include in my pleasure reading some titles that challenge and inform me, as well as entertain.

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