The Pleasures of Literature

This list of literary pleasures is a version of one included in the third edition of The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, a textbook written by me and Mavis Reimer and intended for college level children’s literature courses.

Before reading the list, I encourage you to think about what pleases you personally about reading literature. What kinds of literary experiences give you pleasure, and how do they do so? 

A second recommendation: while reading through the list, keep in mind a specific literary text. In what ways does it or doesn’t it offer the pleasures described?

  • The pleasure of experiencing sounds and images in and for themselves—as pure sensory activity outside and beyond the realm of shared meanings and patterns. This is the essence of what the theorist Roland Barthes calls jouissance—bodily pleasure.
  • The pleasure of words themselves—the patterns their sounds can make, the interesting ways in which they combine with each other, their ability to express revealing, frightening, or beautiful pictures or ideas. This is the point at which jouissance begins to shift into what Barthes calls plaisir: our perception of how a text refers to and confirms what we already know about the world we live in. There are a variety of ways in which texts work to provide readers with plaisir:
  • The pleasure of having one’s emotions evoked: laughing at a comic situation, being made to feel the pain or joy a character experiences.
  • The pleasure of making use of a repertoire of knowledge and strategies of comprehension—of experiencing mastery of what the text expects of its readers.
  • The pleasure of recognizing what reader response theorists call gaps—aspects of literary texts that require readers to bring knowledge from outside the texts themselves in order to make sense of them–and often, learning the information or the strategy needed to fill them, thereby developing further mastery.
  • The pleasure of the pictures and ideas that the words of texts evoke—the ways in which they allow one to visualize people and places one has never actually seen or think about ideas one hasn’t considered before.
  • The pleasure of finding a mirror for oneself–of identifying with fictional characters.
  • The pleasure of escape—of stepping outside of oneself at least imaginatively and experiencing the lives and thoughts of different people.
  • The pleasure of resisting the ways in which texts invite readers to read them as mirrors or as reflections of the perceptions of other people—of realzing how one’s own reality is not the one described or taken for granted in the text.
  • The pleasure of story—the organized patterns of emotional involvement and detachment, the delays of suspense, the climaxes and resolutions, the intricate patterns of chance and coincidence that make up a plot.
  • The pleasure of storytelling—the consciousness of how a writer’s point of view or emphasis of particular elements shapes one’s response.
  • The pleasure of structure—the consciousness of how words, pictures, or events form cohesive and meaningful patterns.
  • The pleasure of one’s awareness of the ways in which all the elements of a literary work seem to fit together to form a whole.
  • Or alternately, the pleasure of becoming aware of ways in which the elements of a literary work do not seem to fit together to form a whole.
  • The pleasure of understanding—of seeing how literature not only tries to mirrors life but comments on it and encourages readers to consider the meaning of their own existence, either by agreeing or disagreeing with the meanings the text seems to be supporting.
  • The pleasure of gaining insight into history and culture through literature, either by accepting or rejecting the text’s presentations of history and culture.
  • The pleasure of recognizing forms and genres—of seeing similarities between works of literature.
  • The pleasure of formula—of repeating the comfortably familiar experience of kinds of stories one has enjoyed before. The last of these is obviously a concentrated experience of what Barthes calls plaisir.
  • There is also a pleasure opposite to formula—something which is more a matter of jouissance: the pleasure of newness—of experiencing startlingly different kinds of stories and poems. (But remember that even formulaic texts have the potential of offering a form of jouissance for a reader who chooses consciously or unconsciously to resist them or even simply to be aware of what and how the texts go about inviting specific forms of response:)
  • As suggested a number of times above: the pleasure of seeing through literature, of realizing how poems or stories attempt to manipulate one’s emotions and influence one’s understanding and moral judgments in ways one may or may not be prepared to accept.
  • The pleasure of exploring the ways in which texts sometimes undermine or even deny their own apparent meanings. Reading for this kind of pleasure is the basis of the kind of literary theory called deconstruction—an awareness of the constructed nature of texts that allows readers to perceive the incompleteness and artificiality of the construction and what the texts therefore consciously or unconsciously take for granted without offering support for.
  • The pleasure of developing a deeper understanding of one’s responses and of relating them to one’s responses to other texts and to one’s understanding of literature in general.
  • The pleasure of sharing experiences of literature with others (reading to others, for instance.)
  • The pleasure of discussing with others their responses to texts one has read.
  • The pleasure of joining the community formed of writer and writers and tasking part in its ongoing conversation. All literature and all experience of literature is tied together—a network of ideas and stories, images and emotions. Literary theorists call this intertextuality. Every time you read a text or discuss your response to a text with someone else, you become part of the network. You learn more about the components of the network, and, in your own response and conversation, add something to it. All readers and all people who discuss their reading are in the process of making literature, of making it mean more to themselves and to others.

This list focuses on verbal texts. But books for children often include pictures as well as words, and these visual texts have their pleasures also; and the same might be said of films, TV shows, video games, and any other imaginative art that includes visual elements. If you think about your responses to the visual aspects of movies or the illustrations in children’s books, you may discover that there is a visual pleasure equivalent to each of the verbal ones mentioned above.

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