Emotions affect our decision-making. That much seems clear. At least for the great majority of us, those without a cool, cast-iron control. I think most of us would also agree that mood affects our choices of reading matter. I am in the mood for something light, one might say. Or this autumn I feel like tackling one of the classics. We might even be in the mood for a cathartic cry from reading ‘a weepie’.
Certainly, there seems little point in reading ‘the wrong thing at the wrong time’. If you’re not in the right mood, or even the right stage in your life, you may not take to a book that at some other point could prove a favourite. Did you ever reject or fail to complete a book in the past that you later picked back up and enjoyed? My book group made me see a couple of novels in a new light. And, for example, I just don’t think I was ready for Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I first attempted it aged nineteen, with its bleak delving to the depths of the human sole, but I was fired up about it in my late twenties.
I have written recently (here) about starting to read a wider range of genres since being in the habit of posting reader reviews and networking a bit with writers. This summer I uncharacteristically read my way through a whole crop of the psychological thrillers that are currently so fashionable and abundant in the wake of Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Hawkins’s The Girl on a Train, and the like. I say this was uncharacteristic because whilst I always have a book on the go, there are few times of the year I can indulge a serious book-a-day habit (pretty much after Christmas and summer holidays), so I must choose wisely.
Not that the aforementioned psychological thrillers are ‘bad’ (some are very good — with a personal preference for those that are character-driven). And not that I am a book snob: the number of ‘classic’ and acclaimed works I have not read would fill a book of its own. But with such a lot to catch up on, you will generally find me with a high- to middlebrow novel, or a biography, usually of a strong female that I admire. Last year, for instance, I ate up the whole of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet (though I then had to read something by David Sedaris as a ‘light sorbet’ afterwards, before embarking on Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last). I have never been one for the summer ‘beach read’ or the ‘chick lit’ novel.
Recently though, I have felt a bit screwed over by something that happened at work. Plus my love / sex life is not exactly the best right now. So with a somewhat diffuse attention span and a rejection of certain topics, these psychological thrillers fit the bill. And I turned those pages faster than a freebasing ferret.
Though my choices were driven by a reduced ability to focus – if you feel on a bit of a downer, that is going to affect your cognition, it was no doubt was also a case of egomania on my part. The main characters in these books are even flakier than I feel, and their relationships run satisfyingly badly. Mean, nasty little me, I could enjoy witnessing metaphorical pins being shoved into the voodoo dolls of the characters.
I am not sure the concept of ‘reading for pleasure’ always applies to leisure reading– or at least, not ‘pleasure’ in its narrower sense of ‘enjoyment’. Though a wider meaning of ‘gratification’ seems to be apt. In their research, Mar et al note that “…mood can influence what book people choose, based partly on whether their goal is to change or maintain their current emotional state.” Rather than using a book to lift my spirits, on this occasion it seems I wanted to indulge the dark and grouchiness. And very gratifying it was too.
R.A. Mar, K. Oatley, M. Djikic, & J. Mullin (2011) Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading, Cognition and Emotion, 25, pp 818-33.
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