Binge Reading vs. Close Reading

dickfrancisI’ve undertaken to write an essay on Dick Francis this summer, in preparation for which I am reading through all of his 40+ novels. His first, Dead Cert, was published in 1962, and he basically published one a year until his death in 2010 (the last few in partnership with his son Felix, who has now taken over the franchise). That’s a lot! I’ve been reading them off and on at least since the 1980s; I own about a dozen (which used to seem like quite a few, until I really took stock) and when things are busy at work I often pick a favorite to reread, as they are both brisk and smart enough to be a nice diversion without requiring a lot of attention.

It’s always interesting approaching as critical projects books or authors I have previously taken for granted or read “just” for pleasure. When I started teaching the Mystery & Detective Fiction course, I went through that with P. D. James, Ian Rankin, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky (many of the other authors on the reading list are not ones I had read before, including Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett, so the effort there was always more academic). But what’s really different about this particular project is that I don’t typically read in bulk this way. Sure, when I find an author I like, I tend to follow up, but outside of genre fiction authors with 40 or more titles to their credit are rare, and I usually get restless after reading a few books in a genre series in a row. A good example would be Mary Balogh: when I discovered I could enjoy her books, I got a whole bunch from the library, but after racing through several, I just really wanted to read something different, and now I think of her as I had Francis, that is, as a safe option when I need some filler in my reading life. (A notable exception would be the Martin Beck novels: once I got hooked on them, I pretty much just kept reading. But there are only 10 of them anyway!)

What strikes me about binge reading is the different kind of attention it requires compared to the intense close reading I’ve done for most of my recent writing — any of my George Eliot essays, for instance, or for reviews including my most recent one of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life — or, for that matter, the reading I do for my teaching. For all of these purposes, poring over details is the essence. It’s not that I’m not reading each of these novels  carefully and trying to hang on to the key details that differentiate one from another. There are plenty of these, and they matter, often substantially. But the novels do have a lot in common, and inevitably they blur together or form, in my mind, one larger whole. Since the essay I’m working on is intended as a kind of overview (though with a particular angle on women and gender roles), that’s appropriate: I’m reading all of them at once because I want to be able to generalize about them, to discuss patterns, or themes and variations, connecting threads, tropes, motifs, whatever. The individual novel is less important than the collection of novels. The more I read, the more each one I pick up reads like part of that collection, if that makes sense: the deeper into the catalog I go, the more rapidly I subordinate the particular to the general. My major challenge is not so much interpreting as keeping track: this is the first time I’ve ever used a spreadsheet as a writing tool!

And yet every novel is different. (I joked on Twitter that so far my lede is “The novels of Dick Francis are both alike and different” –ah, the bane of the undergraduate compare-and-contrast essay!) You could say that this oscillation between similarity and difference is the essence of genre fiction: its predictability is as much the appeal as the ability of a talented practitioner to surprise. I’m reminded of Josephine Tey’s sly, self-reflexive jab at formula fiction in The Daughter of Time:

Even in that, you knew what to expect on the next page. Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thirled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about “a new Silas Weekly” or “a new Lavinia Finch” exactly as they talked about “a new brick” or “a new hairbrush.” They never said “a new book by” whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.

I do notice that interchangeable widget quality as I read these books in relentless succession — and yet I always welcomed the appearance of “a new Dick Francis” precisely because I knew what it would be like but also knew that he was smart enough to mix it up, to really make it new.

9 thoughts on “Binge Reading vs. Close Reading

  1. steve donoghue May 5, 2013 / 10:41 pm

    I wonder: does anybody really do this kind of ‘binge-reading’ if they aren’t either an academic or a book critic? Sometimes it seems like a peculiar penance we undergo on behalf of readers so they won’t have to read 40 Dick Francis novels (or 400 Star Trek novels)(or 4000 Regency romances)!


    • Rohan May 6, 2013 / 9:17 am

      Interesting question. Maybe it depends on how you define “binge.” I certainly hear from family and friends who say things like “I’m rereading all my X books right now” or “I’m in an X phase,” but they are not compelled to press on if they get tired of it any more than I had to keep reading Mary Balogh without a break.


  2. Liz Mc2 May 6, 2013 / 10:18 am

    Romance readers talk about “the glom” all the time (and romance even sucked Rohan a little way into that!). A reader discovers an author she likes and immediately goes on the that author’s often extensive backlist. Personally I find it a fast way to kill my enjoyment of a good thing, but I know lots of readers who do it.


  3. Aven May 6, 2013 / 1:35 pm

    I don’t know if I count, because I’m an academic, but not in English. And I will quite often read or reread as much of an author as I can get my hands on. Mostly genre stuff, too, so these aren’t trivial numbers. I’ve more than once read through all the Christies I own (~60?) in a batch; I did Dick Francis a couple of years ago (only the ~25 I own, admittedly), and Piers Anthony (~35 of them) last summer. 🙂


    • Rohan May 7, 2013 / 2:49 pm

      That all definitely counts as binge reading! And you own a lot of Agatha Christies!


      • Aven May 7, 2013 / 9:49 pm

        I once had an almost complete collection : 80+! Then I decided I didn’t want them & got rid of most. And then I changed my mind & re-acquired a bunch. Thank goodness they’re cheap & widely available 2nd hand!


  4. litlove May 6, 2013 / 2:08 pm

    It’s funny, when I was researching, I had no trouble reading lots of books with the same theme – but then they were probably quite varied when it came to structure and story. The reading I’ve been doing for my week on spy fiction has already started to suffer from the law of diminishing returns and I’m only on the third book! And they are all by different people. I understand the pull to read lots of a favourite genre author, and often feel it when I’ve finished a book I’ve enjoyed. But I’ve never actually done it, and that does make me curious to know how I would feel with a Dick Francis-fest equivalent. I hope you’ll say more about how you get on!


    • Rohan May 7, 2013 / 2:52 pm

      “the law of diminishing returns”: a good way to put it. After a while, too, I start to hear (or think I hear) the machinery creaking: I become more aware of the formula than of the particulars, while after a break to read something else, the freshness is back. DF is holding up reasonably well, though – he doesn’t ever waste my time, for one thing, and the various subcultures he takes us into are often intrinsically very interesting, from kidnap recovery to glass blowing to oil painting.


      • Ros May 30, 2013 / 8:10 am

        The different settings are one of the things I always appreciated about Francis. I do love horseracing in the UK (when I was growing up, my dad and I often went to the races together and I still love to watch on TV), but I also enjoyed learning about different professions and places through his books. One day, I’m going to do that train journey across Canada!

        For me, Francis was also a gateway drug into romance. I found myself increasingly wanting more from the romantic subplots in his books. And then I found that other people wrote whole books about those plots! Hurrah!


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