Exploring Reader Identity: A Case Study

By Rebecca Cook

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This web site was created to fulfill the requirements of the Capping Exercise (LIS 600) at the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta.  The paper was originally written for LIS 580, Contemporary Theories and Practices of Reading.  The site was last updated March 14, 2003.

Due to the autonomy with which most people make their choices about what, when, where, why and how to read, a person’s reading can express his or her personal identity.  In discussing with a person all the unique preferences, patterns and habits that define his or her reading life, one glimpses this expression, as well as aspects of the person that would otherwise remain obscured.  For about an hour on a weekday afternoon, I spoke with a 64-year-old man whom I will call Roy, about his life as a reader.  Roy expressed a hearty enjoyment of recreational reading in his spare time, and a diligent attitude toward academic reading for his career.  It is clear that Roy’s identity is that of an active lifelong reader; he experiences fulfillment through all types of reading, and books and literature occupy a primary focus in his life.  Most pervasive in Roy’s reading identity are four influences: his passion for murder mystery novels, his work as a biologist, his participation in a book club with friends, and his many years of reading experience.

 

A Love of Murder Mystery Novels

A major aspect of Roy’s reading pursuits is his choice of murder mystery novels as a pleasurable reading activity.  These novels are chosen and read by Roy in a recreational manner and are his favorite type of fiction, sought out to be read for enjoyment above all other purposes.  Several habits that researchers note are common in pleasure reading are present in Roy’s use of these novels.  For example, Roy’s reliance on a few well-known and trusted authors in the genre ensures that he will make satisfactory choices, a practice noted by Catherine Sheldrick Ross in her study of reader preferences (14).  Roy’s familiarity with authors such as Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James is well-established and optimizes his satisfaction with the genre; also, Roy derives a great deal of enjoyment in reading about various recurring characters.  Roy’s comments on the mystery genre itself are also significant.  His appreciation of the genre’s ambiance, characters, and elements of suspense and even humour suggest that he is stimulated by this type of novel on many levels. Also, his interest in the genre goes beyond a need to read until the mystery is solved, as seen in his fondness for viewing the television versions of popular mystery novels. 

Roy’s response to the opening lines of Agatha Christie’s The Clocks illustrates some key criteria he uses in examining a mystery novel, and his familiarity with the genre’s typical features.  In his remarks on the lines he has read, he crafts a hypothesis on the identity of the narrator based on previous experience.  Also, he comments on the formula used to set the story, responding positively to the introduction of the body early on in the plot.  In general, Roy expects for the mystery novels he reads to adhere to various standards, as is apparent in his desire for books of “literary quality”.  There is also much indication that Roy expects to experience through these novels a sense of transportation to the world portrayed in them. Sven Birkerts writes of an “immersion” in which “we hand over our groundedness in the here and now in order to take up our new groundedness in the elsewhere of the book” (81).  Roy’s fascination with the “English countryside” ambiance in mystery novels he has read and the detail with which he recalls their plots and characters would certainly attest that he feels the immersion Birkerts has described. 

To some extent it seems mystery novels have become a comfortable and safe genre for Roy to read, since he has always enjoyed them and can rely on them to maintain his interest.  In this way, he demonstrates the reinforcement effect described by Sheldrick Ross in which a well-chosen book will result in a positive reading experience and further reading as well (12).  Roy speaks with affection about the genre’s characteristics that he has come to know well, citing its reliable “sense of right and wrong” and “ideal world”.  However, it is clear that the novels also provide Roy with the challenge and stimulation he seeks in his recreational reading.  The interest and initiative he takes in his pursuit of a good mystery novel is accompanied by the active role he takes in reading it, and his thought processes are continually engaged in order to fully enjoy it.  Both the aesthetic and efferent aspects of reading described by theorist Louise Rosenblatt can be seen in Roy’s reading of mysteries, to some extent.  However, the aesthetic enjoyment of the experience appears to be the dominant influence, since the act itself supplies the benefit and not the information retrieved.  Particularly relevant to Roy’s consumption of the mystery genre is his quote that mystery novels can “feed our imagination”, since it aptly describes the benefit they offer him.

 

Reading as a Career Pursuit

Another important part of Roy’s reading life is the intellectual reading activities he carries out in his career as a biology professor.  This reading is done for a variety of purposes, including preparation for class, independent study, and academic contributions within the science community.  Roy’s habits reveal a keen interest in his field, such as in his maintenance of a personal collection of articles for his own reference and scholarly needs.  Also, he feels responsible for keeping up to date with information published in his topics of interest, relying on book reviews to inform him of current issues.  As in his reading of mystery novels, Roy follows most closely the works of a few main scientific writers, such as Ernst Mayr and Peter Bowler, because of their renown and their use to him in the past.  Of most importance to Roy is keeping informed through these writers and the discussion generated by their work.  Also, a sense of duty is evident in his remarks on this point, as when he names various books he reads because he “should”.  Roy does offer an interesting glimpse of the mental processes involved when he reads material for intellectual purposes.  For example, he acknowledges that challenging reading can be tedious, noting “if it deals with ideas and you’re sort of operating at the edge of what you can understand, then you have to go slower.  You might even have to read it again.”  The process Roy refers to also contains elements that Louise Rosenblatt identifies as “efferent” because it is specifically done in order to take away knowledge from the text (269).  Overall, Roy is devoted to his intellectual reading; it is done purposefully and meets the demands of his work.

A significant implication for Roy’s intellectual reading activities is his partial retirement, which would potentially remove some science material from his daily reading agenda.  Roy addresses this possibility, but concludes that his reading habits will go unchanged because they are “firmly ingrained” and because his identity as a biologist will remain intact.  It is perhaps this assertion which sums up Roy’s intellectual reading best: although the reading Roy does for his work is qualitatively different from a work of fiction he may read for pleasure, his passion for biology is rooted in his identity and will therefore always be central in shaping his reading habits.  In fact, Roy’s use of the term “ingrained” for his habits would appear to apply to both his recreational reading and his work reading.  Undoubtedly, his reading habits are the result of searching for the best way to meet his needs for recreational and intellectual stimulation.  Roy’s profile as a reader is aptly described by G. Kylene Beers’ classification of “avid” readers who typically report reading to be “a way of life”.  Reading is definitely an integral presence in Roy’s life and daily activities, touching every part of his interaction with the world.

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