Recently, as so often happens to me, I stumbled across an article on Twitter. This time the article was about the activity of rereading books. The suggestive title – You can come home again: the transformative joy of rereading – and the first few sentences drew me in:

“Returning to a book you’ve read multiple times can feel like drinks with an old friend. There’s a welcome familiarity — but also sometimes a slight suspicion that time has changed you both, and thus the relationship. But books don’t change, people do. And that’s what makes the act of rereading so rich and transformative.”

It so happens that the activity of rereading has been on my mind lately. First of all, since I just finished writing a paper with my colleague Frank Hakemulder on rereading (currently under review) and appreciation. We found that an increase in appreciation from first to second reading of a literary text is mainly due to increases in comprehension. However, I do think that our study has its limitations, the first of which is the fact that it is an empirical study which naturally constrains the reading experience. The ‘transformative’ experience rereading can offer us – as described in the article written by Juan Vidal that I quoted above – is something that an empirical study like the one we conducted cannot say anything about. For that we would need longitudinal, qualitative studies asking people to reread a book in various stages of their life and comment on their experiences. (Sound like a lovely study, by the way, but one that does not, unfortunately, fit my research plans at the moment)

I think it is definitely true that rereading a book leads to new realisations about style, story, and meaning of a book, but more importantly it leads to new realisations about self and what the book means to us in this moment (and how that meaning has perhaps changed from your last reading). In many ways rereading is even more satisfying to me than reading a novel for the first time. Of course, there is also this melancholic longing that sometimes comes with rereading: you wish you could still experience the wonder you felt the first time you read the book. Nevertheless, rereading affords readers with other pleasures: a sense of familiarity (of coming home), reminiscences about a younger self and the times you read this particular book, discovering hidden gems in books you thought you knew inside and out.

Exactly for these kinds of affordances, I always assumed that rereading is something that everybody does. It turns out that it is not an experience that is shared by everyone, judging by the discussions I have had with colleagues here at my research institute. Some of them were quite surprised to learn that more than 17 percent of a recent survey study sample had reread certain books more than four times. What’s more is that these were also the participants who reported the highest absorption scores. No doubt this is related to what Frank Hakemulder and I found in our experiment on rereading: once you already know a book and reread it again, comprehension is greater, which leaves more room for discovering and experiencing  other aspects of the book to the fullest.

Since I moved to Germany a year and a half ago I have been learning to speak German. Nothing has improved my German as drastically as when I started to read in German. Practice speaking another language all you want, only reading in another language can give such a boost to your vocabulary, gives you a sense of expressions and humor. These things are really hard to grasp and hone in random conversation. It was not until I started rereading some of my childhood favourites like Harry Potter and The Neverending Story in German, however, that I noticed a significant increase in my German skills. I knew the books well enough that I felt comfortable to not look everything up and keep the flow of reading intact. Reading remained pleasurable, I was able to absorb myself in the story and simply forget that I was reading it in a language that I have not completely mastered yet. These rereadings were transformative in a different way: they lead me to a deeper understanding of language – not just the German language, but also Dutch and English – and how we use it to give shape to our world.

 

Currently I am conducting a survey study on meaningful reading experiences in collaboration with Don Kuiken and Shawn Douglas from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. We are looking for native English speakers from the UK that like to read and that have at least had one memorable reading experience in the last year with either a poem, short story or novel.

Are you an English speaking, UK-based book lover that would like to help us out, follow this link to our online survey:

Take me to the survey!

By participating your are eligible for an Amazon gift card that is worth 20 euro’s: I am giving one to every third participant!

The study will approximately take half an hour to an hour of your time and will, of course, be completely anonymous and voluntary. You can drop out at any time if you do not wish to participate anymore and your data will be kept anonymously: no one will be able to identify you. Also, results of this study might be presented at conferences or in scientific journals, however we will always refer to group trends and never to individual responses.

Also, if you have any further questions or ideas about where I could find more like-minded book lovers such as yourself, please contact me at: read.prj@aesthetics.mpg.de

Thank you for your consideration!

 

 

 

 

Ever since I started my PhD project on absorption, I have been thinking about the various ways in which the word absorption can be used. I feel like both the phrase ‘I was absorbed by the book’ and the phrase ‘ I was absorbed in the book’ are valid ways to describe an experience in which you were totally engaged in reading. However, one puts more emphasis on the power of the book than the other: being absorbed by a book, makes the reader a more passive bystander rather than the instigator of the absorbing experience, which seems to be implied in the phrase ‘I was absorbed in  the book’.

Recently, however, I cam across this blogpost by Demian Farnworth on his blog The Copybot. I don’t even remember how I got there (probably via Twitter), since the blogpost is quite dated. Nevertheless the topic of the post is one that immediately caught my eye: “How to absorb a book into your bloodstream”.

This is the first instance in which I have seen the verb absorbing used in such a manner that the power seems to lie completely in the reader. Farnworth argues for a more involved way of reading, by writing…in the margins of your favourite books.

“The point of writing in a good book is NOT to see how many you can get through. The point is to see how many get through to you. How many you absorb into your blood. And one of the best ways to do that is to write in it.”

Now I am not one of those readers who thinks a book is a sacred thing that should be treasured by handling it carefully and leaving it sitting in your bookcase looking much the same as when you bought it. I am a reader who thinks a book is a sacred thing that should be treasured by actively reading it: the first thing I do when I start reading a book is to I crack the spine; I fold corners, and yes, sometimes write in books, when I feel the need to. Fanworth, however, takes this type of reading to another level: he sees writing in a book as a form of intellectual ownership, not just of that copy of the book, but of your thoughts and discoveries about the book you’re reading.

I see where he is coming from, but his way of reading raises a question: when you are actively absorbing a book into your bloodstream, can you still experience that feeling of being absorbed by a book? Once you put the book down, does the feeling of having made a trip to another world linger with you? Or were you so busy with writing and reflecting to become enchanted and leave your chair for a story world? Losing awareness of your surroundings and self – the mark of an absorbed reading experience – seems almost impossible when reflecting so intensely on what you are reading. At the same time, both these types of reading experiences are no doubt highly engaging and worthwhile. Is there an experiential difference between being absorbed by and absorbing a book?

Once again Twitter has brought me to an interesting read and a nice and relevant blog topic: bibliotherapy. I had heard of this before – I even have Berthoud and Elderkin’s The Novel Cure lying around in my reading nook for some ‘DIY bibliotherapy’ – but never realised that there actually are bibliotherapists that you can go and have a session with in the real ‘therapy’ sense of the word.

Ceredwin Dovey was given just such a session and wrote about it in The New Yorker last summer. She tells of the initial back and forth over email after answering a reading habits questionnaire, the list of recommendations she received based on her ‘ailments’ (questions she was dealing with, emotions she had a hard time dealing with), and her experience of reading these novels and how they benefited her. Apart from the fact that the notion of such a bibliotherapy session greatly attracts me, I appreciated Dovey’s article for its venture into scholarly research on the benefits of reading. A field that I am very familiar with (see my post on IGEL’s empathy symposium of last summer).

“So even if you don’t agree that reading fiction makes us treat others better, it is a way of treating ourselves better. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.”

With that in mind and the Christmas holidays around the corner, for this last post of the year, I wanted to let you know what my most absorbing reads of 2015 were, in the hope that they will get you through the dark days ahead (or just to help you relax).

  1. The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
  2. American Gods – Neil Gaiman
  3. The map and the territory – Michel Houellebecq
  4. The Master & Margarita – Mikhael Bulgakov
  5. The big over easy – Jasper Fforde
  6. The Seed collectors – Scarlett Thomas
  7. What I talk about when I talk about running –Haruki Murakami
  8. Operation Shylock -Philip Roth

If this list does not appeal to you, I would recommend flipping through The Novel Cure which incidentally includes a list of engaging reads. Also, I wanted to take this opportunity to announce an addition to this website: the Absorbing Stories Inventory. I recently conducted a survey study with my colleagues Don Kuiken and Shawn Douglas from the University of Alberta, Canada. Part of the survey asked about readers most memorable and absorbing reads of the last year. I plan to publish this list of books, short stories and poetry collections on this website in the new year. For now: happy holidays!

 

 

 

Every November for the last three years I have participated in AcWriMo, or academic writing month. For the newbies, here is a description from the PhD2Published website, where it all started:

“Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo for short, is a month-long academic write-a-thon that happens every November. There are six simple rules: 1) Decide on your goal; 2) Declare it online; 3)Draft a strategy; 4)Discuss your progress; 5)Don’t slack off; 6)Declare your results.”

Obviously, every month is academic writing month when you are living the academic life. However, I still think AcWriMo is a great initiative, since for one month in the year you are trying to make writing your main (or preferably, sole) focus. Since being an academic is about so much more than writing – presenting, teaching, organizing, networking, reading, planning and conducting studies, analyzing data -, but writing seems to be the main thing we are being judged on, I always welcome AcWriMo when it arrives. And it always arrives in such a timely fashion; it is almost the end of the year, you are tired and holding on until the Christmas holidays and then AcWriMo comes around and gives you the ‘kick in the but’ you need to end the year productively!

Official logo of AcWriMo

Official logo of AcWriMo

This year, however, I am finding it hard to find the time to write, let alone be productive. Already when I was setting my goals, I got anxious, since I felt like I needed to do a lot of writing, but could not come up with clear writing tasks (or tasks that were just about writing and not ‘analyze data and write up results’ or ‘make a powerpoint presentation for next month’s conference’; these tasks do involve writing, but minimally…). In good AcWriMo spirit I tried to put my finger on what might be the problem and I realized something: this is the first year that I am participating and not writing for my PhD thesis.

I am a postdoc now and even though I have it easier than most, what with no teaching responsibilities, I still have a lot on my plate. Obviously, I had a lot on my plate during the PhD as well, but in that case everything I did was directed at one final goal: finishing that thesis on time! Now I have a number of different projects that I am working on that are related in various degrees, but do not form one unified whole to work towards. I love the freedom that comes with this, to be able to work on different projects and with different people simultaneously. It gives a nice flow to your work week; when you are tired of reading about one topic, you switch to writing about another, so to say… The downside, however, is that it is sometimes hard to prioritize when juggling so many projects. I realized that I try to keep all of the ‘balls’ in the air at all time and that is why I have had a hard time writing. I have put some balls down now (keeping them for AcWriMo2 in february or AcWriMo3 in April…) and find that I am back on track with a couple of thousand words in the last three days!! Still loving #AcWriMo!

 

I read an article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review recently titled ‘Do we mistake inaccessibility for brilliance?’ An interesting question in and of it self, but what made the article really interesting to me was the use of the term absorption in it. Lesli Jamison tells of her love/hate relationship with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (in her words: shorthand for ‘Hard book that people have strong feelings about’). This next passage is what caught my attention:

I assigned myself 50 pages a day. These were commitment devices that would have once filled me with shame. If I was reading 50 pages a day because I’d decided to, that meant I was failing to have the kind of unforced experience I’d come to fetishize as “authentic” absorption: as if the book would exert a kind of gravitational force to which I’d be utterly enthralled. But in reading those 50 pages a day, I found that any binary I might draw between absorption and intentionality was far more porous than I’d imagined: I moved constantly between rapture and effort; often these modes were entangled and simultaneous. (…)  I was invited into a different understanding of what authentic literary absorption might look like: neither struggle nor bliss but a strange weave of the two; not completely “losing myself” in a book but feeling myself more deeply in the act of reckoning with it — becoming aware of my own attention, becoming an agent in its application.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Jamison draws a distinction between unforced ‘authentic’ absorption on the one hand and intentional effort on the other. This is usually how absorption is discussed in the research literature as well: absorption is characterised as a seemingly effortless experience that happens when the match between book and reader is ‘just right’. Absorbing books seem to have a certain power over their readers: they can draw them into a story world unawares and make them forget about the fact that they are reading. I personally think that such a description paints a perfect picture of my ideal sunday afternoon, however within the field of media psychology and persuasion research the term absorption has almost become synonymous with ‘passive uncritical entertainment’. As a consequence of this kind of description the concept of absorption has been shown in a predominantly negative light. In my dissertation I argued that we need to expand absorption research by discussing possible positive experiences and outcomes of absorption (apart from mere passive entertainment), to alleviate the mostly negative connotations that persuasion research carries.

Jamison’s article gave a perfect example of what I mean when I say we need (to get back to) a more positive outlook on absorption. In the quote above, I feel she also makes a plea for a different kind of understanding of absorption. A literary absorption – a term unheard of within literary studies or media psychology, because it seems a contradictio in terms – that is characterised not only by the feeling of ‘getting lost in the book’, but also by a conscious effort and reflection during reading. In my dissertation I quoted the nineteenth century art critic Bell:

“There is a peculiar emotion provoked by works of art, that transports us from the world of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories arrested; we are lifted above the strem of life” (Bell, 1982)

This is what the romanticists thought off when then were talking about absorption. I liked the quote because it uses language  that is more commonly used by media psychologists to describe absorption with popular narrative media (transports). Also, it relieves absorption from its negative connotations by using terms such as ‘lifting above’ and ‘exaltating’, instead of ‘being forced’ (Brecht, 1964). Jamison’s account shows a modern personal account of an absorption experience with a book that many would at first ‘sight’ not classify as ‘a passive read’. And that makes me happy.

CJu1ijnWEAAKSC5.jpg-large

The participants of the IGEL 2015 conference on Literature & Empathy

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the IGEL ‘mini’ conference on Literature and Empathy in Göttingen, Germany. IGEL, or the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature has a big biannual conference (next summer it will be held in Chicago, be sure to check it out), and some of its members organize ‘mini’ conferences in the in between years. I keep putting the ‘mini’ in between some bunny ears, since Berenike Hermann and Gerhard Lauer, the local organizers, did such a great job in organizing this conference, that it did not feel ‘mini’ to me at all. There were some great speakers and all of them were talking about empathy in literature. This particular conference format is definitely my favorite: there are no parallel sessions, so everybody sees the same presentations and since there is a specific theme to the conference, people can build on each others presentations. Also, there was more than enough room for discussion during the extra discussion panels after each session. So, at the end of the 2 and a half days I really felt like we had worked together on getting a firmer grip on this particular topic.

Now, I know, especially after attending this conference, that the last word on empathy in literature has not been said, but it was great to see much diversity, and also overlap in the presentations. This might sound strange, but I think overlap is a good thing, because it signifies that were working on trying to clarify the same thing, that within this community of empirical literary studies, which is spread out across the world, we are focused enough to specify the research areas of special interest to our field. Empathy is one of those areas, and the community of people present at this conference all felt its importance, which created a nice, focused, but friendly atmosphere to discuss future research avenues.

Especially research into how reading literature can increase our empathic abilities has gathered popularity, which is not surprising since it is currently putting empirical literary studies as a field on the map, due to, for example, Kidd & Castano’s recent publication in Science. But we still have a long road ahead of us, after all we do not have to convince one another that reading literature is important and thus a worthy research topic, but we need to find ways to convince others; literacy programs, education, funding agencies, etc. What’s more than that, as one of the participants of the conference rightly pointed out, we should take care not to get too caught up with valorization of our research, since reading and literature are valuable in their own right, with or without positive effects on people’s emphatic abilities. Thanks to the organizers for a great conference. And if you are intrigued by IGEL after this post, be sure to become a member (regular membership costs 50 euros and student membership only costs 30 euros, for which you also get the society’s journal Scientific Study of Literature), it really is a wonderful community of researchers!

 

Last week I have had the pleasure to meet 6 authors and creative writing teachers at a Creative Writing Workshop I organised together with my colleague Maria Kraxenberger at the Max Planck Institute of Empirical Aesthetics where I currently work. We invited them to this workshop because we were curious how they would address some of the issues we are dealing with as researchers of text effects.

Basically as researcher in the field of empirical literary studies you are concerned with questions like: what kind of effects does this text inspire in readers and how does it elicit those effects? Obviously it doesn’t stop there. For example, I am curious to know whether there are specific text features in stories that are able to absorb readers. To obtain a comprehensive view on this matter though, I would also need to take into account readers’ character traits, their preferences in terms of text genres, where they read, etc. Apart from that, I am interested in this question, because I think that we should learn more about the experience of absorption, because it is able to foster enjoyment, a state of relaxation that is close to mindfulness or meditation and a sense of accomplishment. All of these outcomes are positive goals that people strive for and that could motivate them, and that is why I think that knowing how to generate absorption in certain audiences could be very beneficial to, for example, literary (and literacy) education.

Now, the purpose of this example was to show that the experiments that we do zoom in on very specific parts of our overall research questions and goals. This diving into the text, taking it apart and figuring out how it works, is not all there is to empirical literary studies. But it is the core of what we do and the main way of arriving at solutions to answer the bigger questions.

One way in which researchers have studied text effects is by manipulating certain aspects of literary texts to see how that changes our participant’s responses to those texts. For example, I have done a study on the structure in which stories are told to readers, not the chronologically order of events, but rather they order in which the events are relayed to the reader. What I did in that study was letting one group of participants read an original short story, another group read a version of that same story in which I switched the order of the events to make it like a typical mystery story: beginning with the outcome event and ending in the initiating event (instead of the other way around). I compared the scores of the 2 groups on absorption to each other and found that readers thought that the manipulated version invoked more curiosity and more attention. I was unable to find effects on absorption though. One reason for that, I believe, could be that I adapted the story, and I am not a professional author. I can analyse texts and investigate their effects on readers, but I don’t think I am capable of writing an absorbing story.

The creative writing professionals we invited to our workshop made me realise that I approached the texts in my experiments all wrong. I didn’t look at them like literary works anymore, like whole artworks, like something that is more than the sum of its parts! One of the metaphors that was used during the workshop was the literary text as a house of cards: essentially what we try to do in our experiments is taking just one card from the house of cards, changing it and trying to put it back in to investigate its effects, while the whole time we do that we expect the house of cards to still be standing when we remove that one card. All of the cards together are the literary work: perhaps we should not start with an one particular feature that we want to modify (and thus try to pick out one card in the house of cards), but with an analysis of a text as a whole (lay out all of the cards on the table) and then build it back up slightly different.

I really enjoyed those two days of exchanging ideas, learning more about the creative writing process of authors and indirectly about my own research. A thank you to everyone involved: it was a really inspiring two days!

I love my research. Don’t get me wrong! But as I noticed over the last 5 or 6 years, the topic of absorption poses quite a few research challenges. Now, I love challenges as well, so that is not really a problem. What I think can be a problem in research (not just on absorption) and academia at large is that we tend to focus on the results, the positive, hypothesis-confirming results of our research. Often at the expense of the interesting insights we gained by all of those ‘failed’ experiments or hypothesis-rejecting results.

One of the things I learned the hard way during my PhD is that as a researcher it is your job to communicate your ideas and results in the most effective way and this means not relaying your entire process. I often have the tendency to start at the very beginning and explain what I did, why I did it, what went wrong, and how I then corrected my mistake, and then, and then, and then… I don’t really know where this tendency comes from, but I agree whole-heartedly with my supervisors’ advice to suppress it. It is simply not an efficient way to disseminate your research. However, I do think that from time to time, we need to think about AND communicate our thinking process and the mistakes we made a long the way.

On wednesday the 17th of June I will give a lecture at the Courant Research Centre at Göttingen University entitled “Measuring the feeling of ‘being there’. The challenges that come with researching absorption experiences”. In it I will reflect on some of the things I would have done differently looking back on my PhD project and the things I am going to pick up on in my current research project, not because of the hypotheses that I was able to confirm throughout the PhD, but rather because of the mistakes I made. I think it is good to share that part of the research process as well, since you can warn other researchers not to make the same mistakes and simply because I think I learned most from my ‘failed experiments’ than from any other experiment and I want to pass that knowledge on.

More details about the contents of my presentation after the 17th: after all, I wouldn’t want to spoil the story!

I recently read Haruki Murakami’s autobiographical reflection on marathon running: ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’. I did not pick it up for a long time, because even though I run (or try to) I do not particularly enjoy it, nor want to read about people who do enjoy it. But then I learned that Murakami is drawing parallels between his running and his writing. Since I am a fan of his work – I have a particular soft spot for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles – and not a lot is known about him or how he writes, I eventually started to read it…and was pleasant surprised!

Murakami approaches both running a marathon and writing a novel, not as miraculous achievements, things you accomplish merely by being good at them, perhaps combined with a bit of luck, but rather as things you just need to work really hard for. You have to put the hours in and even when you do not like it, you have to put on your shoes and run or pick up your pen and write. I admire people who approach life in that way and I think I could say that I strive towards pulling of that kind of work ethic as well.

Autotelic experience

Even on days when he did not feel like running at all and went out anyway, all of Murakami’s misgivings and hesitation just fell away. And I think  that is because he was doing something that had an intrinsic value: Murakami is not running because he wants to become an Olympian runner and similarly he is not writing to become the best writer in the world. He is running because he wants to run and he is writing because he wants to write. Autotelic experiences is what these experiences are called: they are pursued for the sake of themselves. Apart from being inspirational, Murakami’s reflections made me think of the autotelic nature of absorption experiences.

Furthermore, his idea that endurance running brings you into an altered state of consciousness, struck a chord in me. Absorbed reading, I think, shows signs of being an altered state of consciousness as well. I am not completely sure, if we are talking about the same thing here. But what I talk about when I talk about absorption, is an altered state in which we are no longer conscious of our own surroundings and to a certain extent even to our own bodily self. And when we are done, we feel happy to have forgotten the world around us for a little while and nothing more. We read because we want to read, because we want to forget, because we want our consciousness altered: we want to become absorbed.