I must ask permission, as I have sometimes done before, to begin apparently a long way from the point. (John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. III, Ch. X)
The problem with invoking Ruskin like this is that he knew the point at which he would end. I intuit my point.
I have said, here and in comments elsewhere, that I am not so interested in the enjoyment of books, not just your enjoyment, but even my own. Typical Wuthering Expectations contrarianism, except that I mean it, as I always do. Pleasure, our reasons for enjoying anything, are so arbitrary. Anyway, I enjoy literature, reading as an activity. I even enjoy the books I do not enjoy. Your enjoyment of a book is likely a much more interesting subject than mine.
The Argumentative Old Git does not enjoy science fiction, as he discusses here – since I am not going to mention it otherwise, his catalogue of the praise of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker is hilariously excellent. Himadri has given the genre the old college try, and then some, and has concluded that whatever the merits of the best books, he is finished for now. Some well-meaning commenters urge him to keep trying, but they fail to understand the statistics of the problem. Himadri is engaging in sequential analysis, which was mathematically formalized during World War II as an efficient way to test explosive shells for duds. Rather than fire off the entire lot of shells, the tester can stop once a statistically significant number of shells have misfired. Himadri has read enough misfires, given his sample size, to call it quits.
Rohan Maitzen is engaging in the same exercise with romance novels. So far, the results are more positive, although she understands that she has not yet fired enough shells to make a statistically sound judgment. The criteria, again, is enjoyment – “amusing and entertaining.” My own experience with romance novels is similar, although my pool is awfully narrow.
Or is it? This fascinating post at Something More led me to the results of a methodologically sound romance readers’ poll, a list of the best or favorite or “top” 100 romance novels, as of 2007, as determined by a large and well-read group of voters. I see that I have read and enjoyed three of them: Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Jane Eyre, the only 19th century novels on the list. Three Georgette Heyer novels (1932-1965) follow, and then seven novels from the 1980s (Judith McNaught is the big name), meaning that 87 of the best 100 novels are from the last 20 years. I wonder what other genres or audiences would give a similar result. Romance seems to have an unstable canon. New novels quickly replace old ones. Would I enjoy any of those 87 as much as I enjoy Jane Eyre?
I have been thinking about writing up the case against the enjoyment of literature, but I have concluded that the point is too obvious. To read well, we should cultivate patience, question our preferences, moderate our consumption of junk, and when writing about reading try to imagine ourselves in the place of others. Consider sacrificing short-term for long-term enjoyment (study, cultivate tastes, read some quantity, however small, of dull but useful books), all within the inevitable constraints of time, energy, and concentration. Everyone knows this, already, so enough of that.
I am still writing about The Woman in White, if I can figure out how to return to it. Through Ruskin, somehow.