Utne Blogs > Literature

The Pleasure of Aimless Reading

by Miranda Trimmier 

Tags: books and publishers, reading, readers, Flaubert's Parrot, The Bounty Farmer,

used booksIt’s one of the beauties of reading used books: Sometimes, you stumble across tangible evidence of the reader that preceded you. Maybe you find their old bookmark, a dedication from a friend, a note they made to themselves in the margins of a page. These scribblings are my favorite. They register, if only briefly, what someone else was thinking while they were reading, offering a window into the normally private interface between a person and their book.

The Bounty Farmer found another reader’s musings in an old copy of Flaubert’s Parrot, but they’re not particularly illuminating. The notes match page numbers with the themes that interested this particular reader:

...101. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed.

...150. That he was obsessed with style.

...193. Art & Life.

...208. do-it-yourself enema pump. 

I’m not sure how to make sense of this chain of associations, and I wonder if the author of the list would be able to remember, either. But the cryptic annotations might give us something else. As The Bounty Farmer observes, they dovetail serendipitously with the tenor of the book, which follows a particularly fanatical reader of Flaubert. This narrator finds fault in overly critical approaches to books, and speaks up in favor of the casual reader's tack:

My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. 

The list testifies to a more universal pleasure of reading—the joy of meandering through a text, guided only by the passages that capture your fancy in the moment. It’s a nice reminder that reading doesn’t need a goal; the act carries its own rewards.

Image by Alexandre Duret-Lutz, licensed under Creative Commons.