I’m currently reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by the recently deceased writer, Robert M. Pirsig. It’s a mind-blowing philosophical journey exploring classical vs romantic understanding. I’m a little over half-way through and I never want this ride to end. In fact, I sometimes take a detour to other books just to prolong it. I’m pretty sure I could do 30+ blogs just inspired from this book. Let’s start with just one.
Bookish Philosophical Inquiry
I just finished a section where the author is camping with his son and he pulls out Thoreau’s Walden. (Sidebar: This feels like a fitting topic since Thoreau’s 200th was just on July 12th.) The narrator in Zen starts to read the book to his son after they have made camp for the night. Normally, his son is very engaged in this activity, but neither one enjoys it in the moment. The author explains…
“…after half an hour I see to my surprise and disappointment that Thoreau isn’t coming through…The language structure is wrong for the mountain forest we’re in. At least that’s my feeling. The book seems tame and cloistered, something I’d never have thought of Thoreau, but there it is. He’s talking about another situation, another time… He isn’t talking to us. Reluctantly, I put the book away….”
On Pirsig’s pages, even when a concept seems simple, which it rarely does, it isn’t. In this passage, there’s a lot more going on between the interplay of the father and the son as it relates to reading Walden then just mere environment. Still, this one facet of the passage poses an interesting question. And since Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is all about philosophy, which is all about questioning the physical and metaphysical states around us, it made me wonder:
How much does environment, or the state of mind one has in that environment, influence enjoyment of literature?
My extremely philosophical answer: A lot.
Here are some examples to support my point.
Support Argument 1: The truth about school
Even if you ask most people who love to read, they don’t often look back fondly on school and the books they were forced to read. Most of the time the books read in school are considered “the classics” and while this constitutes great literature, it doesn’t always constitute “great reading,” especially for teens. I’d argue forcing the classics on teenagers may even precipitate the decline of reading by taking the enjoyment out of it. That’s a debate for another time. Here we’re talking about the environment of school and the state of mind.
The state of mind in school should be that of learning, in theory. But for many kids learning means drudgery. They don’t want to be in school, even if they know learning is important. It’s work. Therefore, reading anything for school is by extension work and not fun, making your state of mind less likely to be open to enjoy literature. A teenager is much more likely to enjoy a book he or she has chosen and even more likely to enjoy it while sitting on a couch and not crammed into a tiny desk.
Support Argument 2: Audio book failure
In a recent blog I chronicled my attempt to get my family excited about audio books. We do a lot of long travel by car and instead of staring off while listening to Spotify, I wanted to try an audio book. My family agreed and we chose Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My husband and I had both read it before and loved it. We couldn’t wait to share it with our daughter.
I thought this would be great. I used to read to my daughter all the time before bed when she was younger. She seemed to enjoy it, even after she was able to read herself. Even as recently as this year, I read a book to her because we both wanted to read it. Sometimes we read it to each other. The audio book felt like an extension of that activity and a smart alternative to long stretches of disengaged driving.
Three chapters in and we were all bored. My daughter wasn’t “getting it.” She, very thoughtfully, explained that she prefers to read, not be read to. Although I had read to her previously, something was different here. Was it the car? Was it the book? Was it both? I think so.
We weren’t focused on the book. Our minds would drift off out the window or to another topic. The car, the trip, the reader, the book itself, it just didn’t work. It was our Walden in a car. The book wasn’t the right fit for our state of mind and environment.
Support Argument 3: Sometimes size does matter
Frequent readers of my blog know that I have the best book club in the world (fact). And I learn so much from every meeting we have, even about something that has more to do with a book’s structure, rather than its function.
I remember one particular book club where we had one member who really didn’t a like a book and everyone else enjoyed it. This is rare. Normally we have a mix and many different options. It doesn’t happen often that there’s only one person who is highly critical.
As we dug deeper into why she disliked it, she told us that she read the book on a plane on her phone. And she doesn’t have a phone like mine, a giant one that is more tablet than phone. No, this was a small screen. And she wondered, looking at all of us who loved this book so much, if it was the cramped plane and the tiny screen may have influenced her dislike of the book more than she realized.
There’s really no way to know for sure. But, I don’t often see her come to book club with a kindle or her phone. She usually comes with a hard copy. I’d guess she prefers pages to screens. Had she read the physical book with a smooth cover and sweet smell of paper, while snuggled up in her bed would she have liked it better?
The great thing about philosophy is that you can postulate, guess, toss out ideas and dissect them. It’s not science. There’s no way to prove if my theory is true or not. Of course this little rumination isn’t real philosophy. At best it’s just an observation. However, I do think that it’s something to consider.
Next time you decide you didn’t like a book or you’re reading and something about the book isn’t working for you. Maybe you’re just not in the right state of mind for it. Maybe you shouldn’t take Kafka to the beach. He’s not really a beach read. Perhaps to get the most out of books, we need to think about more than the content of the books. We need to think about the content of our environment and the content of ourselves before deciding if it’s the right book for that point in our lives.