Three Types of Reading

Reading is such a necessity for me that when I go too long without doing enough of it, I have a hard time. Also, it fills so many different needs that I develop various pent-up cravings for different kinds of reading.

They are, roughly:

  1. Reading for pleasure. Anything that satisfies, but especially things that are enjoyable for personal reasons that have no concrete connection to their utility, and have language and style that entertains.
  2. Reading for knowledge. Essential information about the world. Feeds the appetite for understanding and making sense of things, settles the anxiety of ignorance and facilitates order and reason.
  3. Reading for depth. Reading that feeds the subconscious or soul, the narrative-craving part of you. Reading that upends things, that is chaotic or random, that disturbs or thrills. Reading that swallows and confuses you, but leads in the end to the most astonishing connections and unexpected insights.

I like this division better than simply splitting things up by genre—fiction, nonfiction, etc. The first is a binary value, it’s either present or not, but on its own it’s never enough, like sugar is bland by itself. Types two and three are archetypal; two is Apollonian and three is Dionysian.

Fiction and poetry tend to fall into type three, while nonfiction and essays into two, but most works straddle the lines or overlap.

While I’m always craving immersion in the third kind of reading, if I don’t get enough of type two, I find myself distracted by my own lack of knowledge about so many things which I know so little about. Sometimes I have to read my way through some number two stuff to get my mind free for type three.


2 Responses

  1. Z Vasquez says:

    In terms of what I read (not automatically counting your second category, although this often holds true for that as well), there’s a quote from Franz Kafka (which I came to by way of Philip Roth) that sums it up for me:

    “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

    This is generally how I go about picking out the stuff I’m going to read. Of couse, I can’t know that any book will have this affect on me, but I can generally make some assumptions about it. I won’t disregard a book because of it’s genre, but I am aware of it. I will totally read a spy novel from John Le Carre because I’m aware that there’s a good chance that it will have the above described affect on me. Same with a fantasy novel by John Crowley or a sci-fi novel by Ursula K. Leguin. But that being said, I think it’s safe to assume that the general stuff that falls into those genres – stuff written by the Tom Clancy’s and Micheal Crichton’s and such – aren’t going to do that. Which is fine, that’s not their prerogative. But it also means I’m not going to waste my time on them either.

  2. Justin Allen says:

    I couldn’t agree more that “we need books that affect us like a disaster.” Sometimes this is a hard thing to find.

    For example, right now I’m reading “The Mexico City Reader” (contemporary essays) and “The Conquest of Mexico” (firsthand account from the early 1500s), mainly because I need to know about the place I’m currently living.

    It’s cool stuff I’m reading and important, but I’m getting that feeling that I know I need to read a novel next.

    I feel like Kafka, and Roth quoting him, are saying sort of what I am in labeling the third type of reading. And why an education or a culture that shorts us on reading that puts an axe into the frozen sea within us is missing so much.

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