Reading or Studying?

I often listen to Radio 4’s A Good Read on a Friday night as I’m getting ready for bed, and so sometimes, I admit, I fall asleep before it’s got quite to the end.  But last week I heard it all the way through, more alert than usual perhaps because of a comment made by one of the contributors which set me wondering.

The format of the programme is very simple.  Two guests are invited to recommend a paperback book as ‘a good read’ and, together with the host, who has also nominated a book, they come together and discuss them.  Generally, as with so many discussions, the most interesting programmes are the one during which the contributors disagree.  Where one person fails to see the charms of the others all time favourite volume from childhood, or where another admits to not being able to finish something because they hated it so much.

Last week had some elements of that when opinions differed on Anne Enright’s The Gathering, and The Box of Delights by John Masefield. But it was the work that united them that generated the most thought provoking comment, which each of them repeated in their own way.

TS Eliot’s Four Quartets was selected by historian Ruth Richardson.  It is unusual in itself for a book of poetry to feature on the programme, which mostly focusses on fiction, with a dash of history and popular science, so it was not unexpected that this would be a point of note.  Ruth Richardson explained why she loved the poetry, picking out lines that meant something particular to her, or which had struck a chord with her on different times.  She also confessed that although she didn’t understand it all, she loved it none the less.

I’ve never studied it, she said at one point, rather defensively, as if failure to have ‘studied’ it might disqualify her from liking it.  Later, when giving her reaction to reading it, Harriet Gilbert, the host, also said that while she had read the book many years ago, she too had not studied it.

And I wondered what they meant.  Are there things that have to be studied rather than just read? Is reading a lesser activity than studying?  Which novels that you love might you have to qualify your enjoyment of by admitting a failure of study?

Is it about understanding every inter textual/mythological/ historical/ philosophical/ biographical reference contained in the text, or enjoying the rhythm and richness of the words; rather like understanding all the allegorical references in the bits and pieces around the edges of a Renaissance painting without actually looking at the rich colours or the sweep of the drapery?

Or does study imply that you have both read the thing itself, and read what other people have had to say about it?  My first thought was the idea of studying something at school or university, where the act of being taught it, revising it, and writing an essay about it, drained most things of any kind of excitement or enjoyment.

Are there any novels that you’ve enjoyed but which, if you were to recommend them, you feel you’d have to confess that you’d never studied?  I’ve certainly never done so, therefore for one day only, I’m going to give it a go…. looking back through the 19th century canon……

I read War and Peace (*)when I was a teenager, and loved it.  I don’t think I understood all the philosophy bits because I’ve never studied it, but it’s a great story.

* Insert as appropriate

Anna Karenina

Madame Bovary

Crime and Punishment

Cousin Bette

Tale of Two Cities

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