The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure

Victor Nell studied the trance-like state achieved when “lost in a book” – most commonly experienced when reading fiction or narrative non-fiction (that is, non-fiction that is told like a story); this is why in the 19th century, reading novels was likened to having a drug habit. It worried people that it was so absorbing.

According to a neurological study that Nell performed, processing demands are higher with books than other media (movies, television) but that also means that when you are absorbed in a book, you are more likely to block out distractions. While readers describe being absorbed in a book as “effortless,” their brains are actually intensely active. As one critic said, this is not an escape from thinking, it’s an escape into thinking – intensely, and without distraction.

Richard Gerrig conducted many studies on reading, trying to gain an understanding of the psychology involved. One study that I found particularly intriguing had to do with the extent to which people fold what they read in fiction into their knowledge base, even when they know it’s “all made up.” The less they know about the topic, the more likely they will believe in facts encountered in fiction. Cognitively, we don’t shelve fiction and non-fiction separately.

Another issue about the factuality of fiction is that readers who encounter something they know is inaccurate in a narrative will slow their reading and that slowing might interrupt the sense of being absorbed in the story – it breaks through the illusion of being in the narrative.

Other research suggests that reading helps in the formation of identity. Reading can help people find characters who are like them and affirm that they are not alone, not freaks. They can also help them define what kind of person they want to be.

In Keith Oatley’s New Scientist article that we read for today (28 June 2008, pages 42-43), he reports that he and some colleagues found that fiction acts a simulation of life situations and that, by engaging in reading fiction, people gain a stronger capacity for empathy as measured on standard psychological tests.

Studies of avid readers have found that books have an emotional affirmation. They make people feel better about themselves, provide confirmation that other people have gone through the same things, they help people think through problems in their own lives and help clarify their feelings. They broaden horizons and give them a window into other lives and other societies and help them both engage with the world beyond their personal circumstances and escape from pressures in their daily lives.

In the Spufford reading for today, the author tells us that his sister’s serious illness was a prompt for his reading. Here’s another description of a reader who found escape and enlightenment simultaneously in reading. This is from Greg Bottoms book Angelhead, a rather disturbing memoir of his brother’s schizophrenia:

At some point-I can’t pinpoint exactly when-I realized that books made sense of the worst things, even if they seemed stunted and dark, offering nothing but a crippled epiphany. These were the ones I gravitated toward then: Poe, Dostoevsky–The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘White Nights’ are, to me, schizophrenic classics–and the American pulp novelists of mid-century. I began reading all the time, endlessly, book after book, always looking to find the grand tragedy rendered with meaning-the more transgressive, the more violent, the better because by the middle of the book I wanted to see how this mess would be fixed, how a life, even a sad, broken, imaginary life, could be saved. I started to believe-and I still believe-that I could somehow save myself with a story, and even though I couldn’t save anyone else, I could try to understand them, attempt to grant them at least that, and perhaps it is in this, this attempt to understand, that a person is truly saved . . . I am not exaggerating when I say books saved my life; or put another way, books saved my mind and helped me to understand my life” (104-6).