Text and Context: How Our Mood Affects Reading

In and of itself, any novel is good or bad, funny or sad, etc. — right? Well, yes…and no. A literary work does have an intrinsic value (or lack of one), but a reader’s intelligence and experience and mood affect how the book will be perceived. I’m going to focus on the mood thing in this column.

For instance, my main reading when I was on vacation earlier this month was Henry James’ The Ambassadors. It’s a novel (James’ favorite of the many he wrote) that’s beautiful but SLOW. Little action (this is not Jack Reacher, people!); long, intricate sentences; subtle psychological insights; and delicately detailed interplay between characters (one of whom is an American sent to Paris to try to bring a young man back to the U.S.). The fact that I was often relaxing by a lake while reading so leisurely a book seemed appropriate, and probably added to my enjoyment. There was a matching of text and context.

Despite a 10-hour trip from hell to drive 285 miles home, the vacation had made me less stressed than usual when I began rereading Charlotte Bronte’s excellent Villette. Near the start of the novel, I found myself laughing out loud at the interaction between the prim Paulina character and the Graham teen who comically goads her. Would I have found that quite so hilarious if I were in a tense mood? Probably not. (Paulina knows how to jab right back at Graham, literally and figuratively.)

Or how about being angry at someone, yet knowing that real-life revenge is out of the question — unless you want to peruse books in prison? 🙂 You can vicariously revel in virtual vengeance when reading something like Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Stephen King’s Rose Madder, or any of Lee Child’s visceral novels starring the aforementioned Reacher. Those books are page-turners no matter what mood you’re in, but they can have even more impact when you’re feeling irate.

When you’re feeling melancholy, a novel with melancholy moments can seem even more…melancholy. Try George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda when your mood is sad, and you’ll be sighing more than a person watching a Republican presidential debate. (Eliot’s magnificent novel also has some wonderfully upbeat plot threads.)

Of course, when you’re falling in love, or in a troubled relationship, or in an unrequited-love situation, etc., that can heighten the experience of reading novels with memorably happy or tumultuous romances. I’m thinking George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, James Clavell’s Shogun, and so many other books.

Many of us have experienced bad treatment at the hands of the rich and powerful, at the hands of people who are racist or sexist or homophobic, and so on. When there is that kind of hurt in our lives, it can be especially intense and/or comforting (in an “I’m not in this alone” way) to read books with social-justice elements written by such authors as Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, and John Grisham.

And when life gets too burdensome or boring, it’s especially pleasant to escape into fantasy novels or magic-filled books — with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series two obvious examples.

Which books have you read that have been enhanced by you being in a particular mood?

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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.