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In Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, Victor Nell looks at the psychological and physiological sources of the enjoyment derived from reading for pleasure.

To identify the changes in consciousness produced by what he calls "ludic" reading, the author uses historical, critical, and clinical techniques.

In the following passages, Mr. Nell--senior lecturer and head of the health-psychology unit at the University of South Africa--considers the power of books to "transport" readers.


By Victor Nell

Reading for pleasure is an extraordinary activity. The black squiggles on the white pages are still as the grave, colorless as the moonlit desert; but they give the skilled reader a pleasure as acute as the touch of a loved body, as rousing, colorful, and transfiguring as anything out there in the real world.

And yet, the more stirring the book the quieter the reader; pleasure reading breeds a concentration so effortless that the absorbed reader of fiction (transported by the book to some other place and shielded by it from distractions), who is often reviled as an escapist and denounced as the victim of a vice as pernicious as tippling in the morning, should instead be the envy of every student and every teacher.

These are the paired wonders of reading: the world-creating power of books, and the reader's effortless absorption that allows the book's fragile world, all air and thought, to maintain itself for a while, a bamboo and paper house among earthquakes; within it, readers acquire peace, become more powerful, feel braver and wiser in the ways of the world.

Absorption may sometimes deepen to become entrancement, the signs of which are greater resistance to interruption and the returning reader's momentary bewilderment, as of someone waking from a dream. "Oh," says the reader, half-apologetically, "I was so deep in the book!"--and indeed, a person emerging from reading trance does appear to be surfacing from a depth or returning from another place.

Absorption seems to accompany all pleasure reading, but trance is less common and resembles an altered state of consciousness: reverie, or dreaming, or perhaps even hypnosis.

Neither absorption nor trance is restricted to fiction: The final entries of Captain Scott's journals can transport a reader to the icy Antarctic wilderness as surely as any novel or short story; and a newspaper account of a tankcar derailment that sends poisonous fumes creeping toward a sleepy community can entrance as fully as any imaginary disaster story. ...

Certain preconditions must be met before ludic reading can begin. In the first place, ludic readers seem by and large to be skilled readers who rapidly and effortlessly assimilate information from the printed page. ...

The second antecedent is the expectation that reading will be a pleasurable experience.

First exposure to the delights of storytelling takes place in early childhood; later, the child reader may find that books offer similar delights and learn to turn to them for the kind of consciousness change that narrative produces so readily.

The third antecedent is selection of an appropriate book. ...

If all three are present, and reading is more attractive than the available alternatives, reading begins and is continued as long as the reinforcements generated are strong enough to withstand the pull of alternative attractions. These reinforcers appear to be of two kinds.

One is a series of physiological changes in the reader mediated by the autonomic nervous system, such as alterations in muscle tension, respiration, heart beat, electrical activity of the skin, and the like. These events are by and large unconscious and feed back to consciousness as a general feeling of well-being.

The second kind of reinforcer is cognitive changes, which are numerous and profound. Reading changes the focus of attention from self to environment.

Because of the heavy demands reading makes of conscious attention, the reader is effectively shielded from other demands, whether internal or external. At the same time, the intense attention brought to bear by the entranced reader may have the effect of transfiguring both book and reader.

The absolute control readers exercise over their reading with regard to pace, content, initiation, and duration means that reading can be used to accomplish two very different goals, to dull consciousness or heighten it.

I shall argue that readers' personality dispositions and current concerns determine which of these goals is pursued: For most readers, most of the time, it is likely that one of these two modes will consistently be preferred. ...


In 1905, a teacher named Sarah Cone Bryant wrote an extraordinarily vivid account of storytelling in its most basic form. Combing the hair of a cross little girl, she tells her about the tingly-tanglies that had tied knots in her hair as they climbed through it: "Never had the witchery of the story to the ear of the child come more closely home to me. ... The surrender of the natural child to the storyteller is as absolute and invariable as that of a devotee to the priest of his own cult." ...

There is no great distance from storyteller to author, or from listening to reading. ... [T]he storyteller's function is to transport the audience to some other place, to remove them from themselves; and in everyday language, there are indications that ludic books have a similar purpose. The English phrase "to be carried away by a book" has equivalents in many languages.


[A]lthough fiction is the usual vehicle for ludic reading, it is not its lack of truth--its "fictivity"--that renders it pleasurable. ...

The most striking evidence that fact grips us at least as strongly as fiction is the self-evident but almost entirely unremarked phenomenon that the way we lose ourselves in a newspaper (especially when a big story runs: the assassination of a president or a great pollution threat) cannot be distinguished from the way we lose ourselves in a novel.

The traditional definitions of news fail to account for its fascination because they deal with news in isolation, as a unique phenomenon, instead of seeing it for what it most truly is, a kind of storytelling.

Two lines of evidence support this contention. First, both newsroom jargon and the classic news criteria acknowledge the identity of news and storytelling. "I'm writing a story," say reporters at their typewriters--about a murder, a fire, a dog show. And timeliness, proximity, scale, and importance, are also the criteria for successful plays and novels, which mirror the issues of their time with no less accuracy than the daily newspaper.

synopsis-by-quotation of the development of news, derived from the Old French noveles.

In the sense of "tidings, the report or account of recent events or occurrences," the word appears from the 15th century. It is a source of delight or sorrow or wonderment. There is also an early awareness of the swiftness of news. Moreover, big news was soon "better" material. ... The trick short-story endings of O. Henry and his imitators, radio and television serials, and whodunits in which on the last page it is the heroine who is discovered, blood-stained dagger in hand, all reinforce this view. ...

[But] contrary to the belief that suspense is an essential component of the enjoyment of narrative, there is a great deal of evidence that it is not. ...

Now, nothing could be more familiar and therefore less suspenseful than a dangerous personal experience, etched into one's memory and relived on countless occasions in dreams, daydreams, and narration.

Nonetheless, this autogenic trance is the prototype of much other internal storytelling, which, though it fascinates us, can certainly not be considered suspenseful.

This strange conjunction of endless repetition and undiminished enjoyment is not restricted to individuals. Every family has its favorite amazing experience (finding a long-lost relative in the foyer of a hotel, or how a cat left home and returned six months later with a litter of kittens).

Such tales are told with undiminished zest to such new audiences as become available, but not only the teller is zestful--spouse and children, who have heard the anecdote dozens of times, hang on every word.

Indeed, our pleasure at a story a friend is telling for the fourth time is certainly different from the pleasure we felt the first time we heard it, but not necessarily less: On the contrary, our participation in its unfolding may render our enjoyment even keener. ...

Audiences apply different standards to private and public storytelling. For example, the media, for which we pay, are obliged to be continually fresh. The worst sin an editor can commit is to run a news item or feature article that has appeared before.

But private storytellers (friends and family) are allowed, even expected, to repeat themselves; and, under suitable safeguards, so may public storytellers.

The most common of these safeguards is an appeal to the past: Retelling folktales is culturally sanctioned, and this license may be made to apply to other kinds of material. The most powerful of the literary devices that sanction a disguised form of repetition is the formula story. ...

For the adult, the formula story offers what the same story offers the child: security through the fulfillment of conventional expectations by using highly predictable structures in "a well-known and controlled landscape of the imagination."

This structure allows the reconciliation of two apparently contradictory needs: on the one hand, for intense excitement permeated with the symbols of violence and death; on the other, for order, peace, and security in a predictable world.

Within this framework, characterization and suspense are not abrogated but take on a radically altered form. Characters are drawn by stereotype (the schoolmarm from the East, the tycoon with a heart of gold) and freshened by unexpected combinations (Shane is both shy and violent, Sherlock Holmes is the dreamy poet and also the supreme man of reason) so that the stereotypic aspect of the character heightens audience response "through the recognition that comes from many previous encounters. ..."

In this secure landscape, suspense operates by evoking a temporary sense of fear and insecurity. We know that the hero is invulnerable, but here he is, handcuffed and locked into a stainless-steel safe at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. ...

Notwithstanding the whisperings of our critical sensibilities, our subjective perception of a narrative that conforms to minimal narrative rules is that it's a jolly good story, not that the same tired theme has been reenacted.


From Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure by Victor Nell. Copyright 1988 by Yale University. With permission of the publisher, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.

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