One thing we--teachers, parents, and everyone else concerned about reading — need to do is put pleasure back in the reading experience. Or rather, we need to validate it. We need to tell our students, children, each other, ourselves, that it’s fine to read primarily for pleasure. I know my students already do. “Read for pleasure” is advice I don’t need to give them, because they already believe it. One of the common gripes we teachers of literature make about our students is that they don’t read, but I’ve found that it’s not true. At the start of every schoolyear I give out, in all my first-year lit classes, a survey sheet in which I ask what they like to read. I’ve found that they do read. It’s just that their tastes tend to be narrow. Some read only light fantasy. Others read only chick-lit. Still others read only manga (Japanese illustrated fiction, very much like comic books). This year the Twilight books were a frequent answer. They don’t need me to tell them to read for pleasure. What they need from me is to say it’s okay to admit it.
What they also need from me--and this is more important--is to expand their definition of pleasure. The problem is not that we value pleasure so much, it’s that we define it too narrowly. Most perniciously, we think that pleasure should come easily. If something is supposed to be fun, it shouldn’t have to make us work. It definitely shouldn’t have to make us think. And because we get our pleasures so easily now, we demand that they always be easy.
But pleasure comes in degrees and in wide varieties. There is the pleasure of figuring out “whodunit” (as any reader of Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler knows). There is the pleasure of trying to solve puzzles (as Dan Brown fans do). There is the giddiness of a romance novel, the fright of horror. But how about the pleasures we overlook? The pleasure of beauty, in language and in craft. The pleasure of characters rendered as if they were real people, of places vividly evoked. The pleasure of plumbing singular experiences, even sad and painful ones, of sharing the lives of the sorrowful, the lonely, the damned. There is the pleasure of insight, of ideas. The pleasure of contemplating the unfathomable evil and goodness in the human heart. But these pleasures often take some experience to arrive at, and some effort too.