freedom in reading


The most salient characteristic of being a reader is freedom, and this freedom is part of the political nature of the novel. Even when you are twelve years old and required by means of rewards and punishments to read Oliver Twist, you may stop. More than that, you may question and resist. How ridiculous is it that Oliver can’t get a second helping of porridge? You decide. In fact, you must decide. You can decide that Oliver has suffered an injustice, you can decide that Oliver deserves his fate, you can decide that this can’t possibly be true, you can decide that you do not care one way or the other, but whatever decision you are making, you are free to make it – there is no group disapproval, as there might be in a theatre should you boo or get up and leave. The entire time you are reading any novel, you are experiencing freedom and autonomy, and this is a political experience. You are also experiencing either agreement with the author or disagreement, and this is a political experience, too. He or she is luring you with plot-twists, character development, pathos, wit, exotic scenes, but you decide whether to go along or resist. And there are resisters to even the most universally admired novels. A reviewer on Amazon writes of War and Peace, ‘The fact is that WP just isn’t great, and we’ve been sold a bill of goods to make us feel guilty about falling asleep over it.’ After cataloging inconsistencies in the text, he concludes: ‘I agree with Tolstoy – it’s a “monstrosity”.’

— from an excellent essay by Jane Smiley