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How and Why We Read
December 4, 2012 4:12 PM   Subscribe

"Reading is always an act of empathy" - John Green of Crash Course (previously) explains "How and Why We Read" (... and recommends his favorite books).

More videos on "Why We Read," from The Center for Fiction:

Mary Gaitskill
E.L. Doctorow
Francine Prose

New York Times' dump:

"A Good Mystery: Why We Read"
& "Online, R U Really Reading?," both by Motoko Rich
"What Literature Does" by Elif Batuman (part of a roundtable discussion link on "Neuro Lit Crit")

More tangent than counterpoint:

"Is there any reason to read?" by Alberto Manguel
"We Can't Teach Students to Love Reading" by Alan Jacobs
posted by mrgrimm (19 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
The frenzied pace kinda made my head spin. Couldn't watch the whole thing.
posted by michellenoel at 4:15 PM on December 4, 2012


The book doesn't exist for the benefit of the author....

Yeah, that's 100% incorrect. The author's benefit is always first. If it wasn't, the book wouldn't exist.
posted by dobbs at 4:24 PM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Fault in Our Stars was one of my absolute favorite books that I read this year, and hearing Green's thoughts on empathy and authorial intent while thinking about how powerful I found that piece of his work was really enjoyable. It's clear in his writing, and in his speaking, how much he respects his audience. Thanks for sharing this.
posted by amelioration at 4:24 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I hated this guy. In my mind I imagine a conversation we're having. He's talking; I'm walking away.
posted by dobbs at 4:25 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The author's benefit is always first.

What do you mean by the author's benefit though? I agree that a book is written for an author's "benefit" if you're just talking about the money and accolades and whatever emotional rewards an author feels for finishing a book. But I think that's just half the equation, and that the way more important half is that the book exists to be read by an audience.

John Green is perhaps a little more extreme than most when it comes to not privileging the voice of the author over the reader, but I agree with his statement that the book doesn't exist for the benefit of the author. A book is part of a dialogue, it's meant to be read. From what I've read of his work and seen in his videos, Green is emphatic about reading not being a passive activity where the reader is a receptacle for the all-important Author's Will and Purpose. Green instead champions reading as active engagement, interpretation, and questioning. That's a really valuable point of view for Green's young adult audience, who are used to middle and high school literature classes that stifle that kind of active engagement in favor of more limited textual interpretations.
posted by yasaman at 5:01 PM on December 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


All through that video, I kept thinking, "This guy looks like he really hates pennies."
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 5:01 PM on December 4, 2012


"We Can't Teach Students to Love Reading" by Alan Jacobs

That's why the Internet, manga, and serialized books took off because students don't read -- it's just an overload of texts these days. Reading and writing is alive and well, it's just that we have so many options, that we aren't stuck with boring and bloated pieces filled with pithy and alarmist logic that's backed with scant to nil evidence. Just because someone doesn't read what you read, doesn't mean they don't read.

The book doesn't exist for the benefit of the author....

Yeah, that's 100% incorrect. The author's benefit is always first. If it wasn't, the book wouldn't exist.


Of course the book exists for the benefit of its creator: it's how the person earns his bread and butter, how he makes sense of the world as he finds his place in it, and the way he shares his heart and soul with people from different times and places.

And reading isn't always an act of empathy -- it can be an act of seeking validation or vindication for both our triumphs and shortcomings; it can be a search for meaning and understanding, a way to steal wisdom and knowledge or a way to escape. It can be an act of deference or defiance or a way to face one's darkest fears. It can be an act of cowardice or bravery, of intelligence or stupidity, a way to connect to our fellow man or completely disengage from humanity.

Reading is as much a reflection of the reader's soul as the text is a reflection of the writer's soul, but what you think you see isn't always what you get.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:08 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Reading is always an act of empathy"

I read that stop sign empathetically. Also, ingredients lists.
posted by DU at 5:16 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The frenzied pace kinda made my head spin. Couldn't watch the whole thing.

Heh, this is so languorous compared to his usual vlogging.

I usually roll my eyes when people say metafilter doesn't do stuff well, but metafilter doesn't do John Green well.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:13 PM on December 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


Actually, Alexandra Kitty, that's a nice diatribe and some pretty words you've got strung together like little pearls of genius there, but in this case, the science is not on your otherwise quite rhetorically appealing-sounding side. (And I mean that sincerely; you're rhetoric sounds really nice!)

tldr; You're mistaken: the books you read don't reflect you, you reflect the books you read. And so the more and greater variety of books you read, the more your capacity for empathy grows.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:17 PM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I read, on his computer, "This Machine Kills Fascists" and recognized the reference.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:21 PM on December 4, 2012


I read that stop sign empathetically. Also, ingredients lists.

I guess that word 'always' triggered you?
posted by fleacircus at 6:22 PM on December 4, 2012


Obscure Reference, his novel "Paper Towns" has a good bit about Woody Guthrie and "This Machine Kills Fascists."

(I'm maybe a bit weird in that I don't like The Fault In Our Stars as much as Green's other books? But he's certainly worth reading.)
posted by Jeanne at 8:09 PM on December 4, 2012


metafilter doesn't do John Green well.

I know, and it's such a shame. He's one of my favorites. I've loved the crash course history videos, too.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:28 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


metafilter doesn't do John Green well.

Metafilter is at that awkward early middle age when uncritically enthusiastic identification with geek culture seems oh-so-tiresome. It's always the stuff that you were into when you were younger, the weirdo elitism you're trying hard to grow out of, that you reflexively cringe at when you see it in others. I would have been bonkers for John Green back when I was all about "interesting" science-fiction convention fans versus the boring "mundanes." Green himself drops hints that he doesn't really buy into it, that he thinks all the world's worth appreciating, but he definitely hooks teenagers onto his side with this Nerdfighter sub-culture game.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:13 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


John Green doesn't deserve cheap snark. I admire him for his sincerity, of which the best example is his video about religion.
posted by Idle Curiosity at 12:50 AM on December 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


the more and greater variety of books you read, the more your capacity for empathy grows.

Maybe we should call books empathy boxes?

Yeah, that's 100% incorrect. The author's benefit is always first. If it wasn't, the book wouldn't exist.

Of course the book exists for the benefit of its creator: it's how the person earns his bread and butter, how he makes sense of the world as he finds his place in it, and the way he shares his heart and soul with people from different times and places.


You should talk to some other writers about these rather old-fashioned notions.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:41 AM on December 5, 2012


He gives a good list. Any of you who have avoided The Book Thief because it is YA should remedy that. It is a truly magical book. And I have never seen anyone recommend The Blood of the Lamb, which is a damn shame because it is one of the funniest and moving and insightful books I have ever read. Peter DeVries was once a giant and is now, sadly, mostly forgotten. And that book is his masterpiece.
posted by old_growler at 11:25 AM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Second the recommendation of The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, in particular the Audio version is innovative in technique, something of a cult classic audiobook, if such a category exists, this would be the founding one.
posted by stbalbach at 11:32 AM on December 5, 2012


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