Throughout this pandemic, I’ve been reading fiction to simulate going home to Florida. I read Ivy Pochoda’s sprawling Los Angeles novel Wonder Valley (2017) to replicate my layovers after flying into LAX, and Swamplandia! (2011) by Karen Russell to remember the smell of swampland and the tacky sadness of gift shop strip malls. I returned to Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot (2002) to relive the experience of buying a shrink-wrapped copy at the Scholastic Book Fair in the refrigerated library of my Central Florida elementary school. For 18 months I have used fiction for my own simulative purposes, as a game I can play to get home.
This type of reading may be described as reading for pleasure. Like a game, I engage with a fictional interface and desire enjoyment. As the user, I decide how and why I want to read the texts I select. In the case of my homesickness, I had the particular purpose of simulating lost experience and indulging my nostalgia. I chose the reading mode and gamed my adventure.
While the original goal of reading these texts was to feel connected to home, the end result was unpredicted. Each novel taught me more about my ambivalent relationship with America. Through Pochoda and Russell I witnessed the stain of violence and grief in the nation’s quest for capital. With Hiaasen, I was present for the destruction of the environment in the name of convenience. Meanwhile, these texts foreground the strive to live a meaningful life in spite of chaos. There is something unique about the American condition that balances feelings of emptiness with significance. And while I was able to return home through my reading, I was reminded of the fact that every time I do, I absorb the sickness in the culture, and feel like I need to get away by fleeing across the ocean. While this was not the desired outcome I set for my pleasurable reading task, I exited reading with some new knowledge about my orientation in the world, or lack thereof.
This game of reading for pleasure seems different to the sort of reading we teach and learn in school contexts. While I read for pleasure in the evenings, during the day I conceptualise my reading time as a researcher to be a different sort of game. I have been trained to approach reading texts with the purpose of knowledge creation. This kind of reading has to be work, and so it has to be hard, and have the potential for consequence. I experience pleasure when I am working, I find thinking to be a pleasurable activity, but my main intention isn’t enjoyment. I can’t approach the texts with a purely personal goal, my reading has to reach out beyond my interests and speak to the concerns of others. More than anything else, I want my researched readings of literature to be useful to someone.
As a teacher, I encourage my students to address texts with a critical edge that goes beyond pleasurable experience. Of course, I want my students to read for pleasure and delight in their literary encounters, enjoyment is a critical feature of engagement, but I also believe that pleasure cannot be the final stop in their education. When I reflect on my own experience as a literature student it feels clear to me that enjoyment was valued, but at the core of our mission stood something greater. The educational approach to literary reading doesn’t feel like a game at all because it connotes rigor and significance.
However, the purpose of a literary education still feels largely like a mystery. Whether one reads in the context of a formal educational institution, or for personal education, this approach to reading is often conceptualised differently to reading for pleasure. Throughout history, English as an established discipline has wrestled with this difference.