Book talk; Or, Reader, read thyself

This post was inspired by a recent episode of The Readers, in which the hosts responded to a question about how to talk about books. As is usual when I listen to book-related podcasts, I want to drop my own two cents. 

“I liked it. What more do you want?”

Unless you’re an English major, you haven’t been trained to talk about books. Thus, book group conversations often end once everyone has said either, “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.” I bug my book-happy niece all the time because I keep asking her “Why?” until she breaks down or tries to weasel out of it by saying she forgot what it was about.

English majors, however, are taught a handful of critical lens to apply to texts. We’re lucky that someone helps us pull aside the curtain to take a look backstage. We learn to deconstruct and psychoanalyze. We can read as feminists or Marxists. We can read closely or look at the historical context. I think the most useful lens of the amateur reader (like me and you, probably) is to examine the book as a Reader, through readers’ response. More than anything else, a book’s meaning is dependent on what the reader makes of it. Any response is valid, so long as it can be backed up by the text.

The trick to reader’s response is to know yourself as a reader. As much as you’re psychoanalyzing the text, you’re psychoanalyzing yourself. (This can be a disturbing thought if you like zombie and pandemic novels, as I do.) You have to question your response to a book’s content or characters. Why do I hate this character? Why do I like the way the plot turns at this point? These questions can lead to great discussions. And I think this is a less daunting approach to how to talk about books than trying to cram a bachelor’s degree worth of critical theory into your head before the next book group meeting.

If this doesn’t work, you can always harass your book buddy by asking “Why?” until they break down.

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