To Enjoy Reading Is To Enjoy Instruction

William Churchill, "Woman Reading on a Settee"

William Churchill, “Woman Reading on a Settee”


 I recently came across an old Charlie Rose interview with David Foster Wallace (May, 1996) where the author wrestles with the tension between reading a work for enjoyment and for instruction. I’ve been fascinated by this issue for a while and I’m far from alone. Plato, Horace, and Sir Philip Sidney all discussed the distinction, as have many others.

Here’s what Wallace had to say on the subject:

Fiction for me, mostly as a reader, is a very weird double-edged sword — on the one hand, it can be difficult and it can be redemptive and morally instructive and all the good stuff we learn in school; on the other hand, it’s supposed to be fun, it’s a lot of fun. And what drew me into writing was mostly memories of really fun rainy afternoons spent with a book. It was a kind of a relationship.

I think part of the fun, for me, was being part of some kind of an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.

And further on:

There’s this part that makes you feel full. There’s this part that is redemptive and instructive, [so that] when you read something, it’s not just delight — you go, “Oh my god, that’s me! I’ve lived like that, I’ve felt like that, I’m not alone in the world…”

And this:

The way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I … want as a reader and what got me off when I was reading. A lot of it has to do with … really stretching myself … really having to think and process and feel in ways I don’t normally feel.

Even though people have been discussing the fun/instruction dichotomy since the beginning of literary criticism, I wonder if there isn’t something false about it. After all, many people find instruction to be fun.

An example: As I watch my grandchildren, I see how their play is also essential to their development. Their play is the work they must do to acquire a large range of necessary life skills. Isn’t it the same with reading literature, whether it involves “talking to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about” or thinking and processing and feeling “in ways [we] don’t normally feel”?

True, there are those people who claim that readers are wasting their time. To cite Yeats’s “Adams Curse,” readers are regarded as “idlers” by “the noisy set of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen” that are called “the world.” But why does this particular world get to define the terms?

I sense that Horace and Sidney would like to admit that they are just having fun but feel like they to mention “instruction” to get the world off their backs. They are like people at liberal arts colleges who feel they have to emphasize just how practical a liberal arts education is. To say that students must run up thousands of dollars of debt in order to have fun with learning—well, that’s a hard sell.

The cost of college is a sore subject but, that aside, I’d like to assure students that having fun with learning is a vital life skill, one of the most important they can develop. Fun and instruction don’t have to be at odds.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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