Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stockholm Syndrome

Over the past week, a lot of bloggers (and others) have been linking to and discussing a very clever essay by Mark OConnell on The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels.

The basic theory is that, much like a hostage taker, a long book can get away with "long, cruel sessions of torture" by committing occasional acts of kindness. If the book does this, the reader will become disproproportionately and perversely devoted to it.

As an illustration of this theory, the author notes: "I can't say that I enjoyed every minute of [Gravity's Rainbow], or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it . . . . I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something."

This is hardly true of my experience. Some books I like more than others, but when I find I am not enjoying "all that much of a book at all" -- whatever its length -- I will put it down and leave it unfinished. Life is too short.


  1. that characterization of gravity's rainbow (which i read after todd gifted it to me) aligns with my experience perfectly. the whole time i read it, i thought, "what the heck am i doing", but i kept on reading and was glad i had done so when i finished it.

    these days, i too often stop reading books if they aren't working for me. in fact, i stopped reading the untouchable last night... i may go back, but we'll see (i just plain don't LIKE the main character, narrator). but i always feel a terrible regret when i do, like i'm going to miss something great. i remember "sticking with" certain books that were painful reads (dostoyevsky, anyone?) that were some of the most rewarding books i've ever read....

  2. I agree with Eric. Some books that turned out to be some of my favorites have sections that I've had to power through (like the "victims" section of 2666). Hell, the first time I read Gravitys Rainbow, I barely knew WTF was going on, but I knew there was something I liked and stuck with it. That's not to say that I'll stick with a book for the sake of being obstinate - as I get older, I give up on books more easily just because there's so much to read - but there are some books with tough sections that require work to get through, and I suspect that that work is what the author is talking about. Joel, have you had a similar experience, or are you just saying that you wont readsomething just to say that you've read something "difficult" (something I would agree with wholeheartedly)?

  3. You said that your first time through Gravity's Rainbow, you knew there was something you liked. I think that is a fundamentally different experience from OConnell's, who claims he didn't like it much at all, but still kept with it.

    I'm all for having to work, if you find yourself growing and expanding.

    But OConnell doesn't say he was growing and expanding. He doesn't even say he read the book just to say he read it. He said there was some psychological mechanism at work whereby he fundamentally disliked the book, but because there were occasional small rewards, he somehow was forced to keep reading. Which sounds interesting-- but its not an experience I can relate to.

  4. maybe it's akin to a long, painful run. i know we've all had them... a long where where you just plain don't have it, can't settle into the groove... where you are aware of each mile, each step. feels nasty, not enjoyable... but then you look back and say.... "hey, i got through it." i guess you gain in fitness and health, whereas, in the book... you gain? maybe the ability to withstand shite? that seems pretty helpful to me, from my experiences...


  5. I got to pondering this as I fell asleep last night. I'm not sure what you get for muscling through books you don't really enjoy. The last Stephen King book I read was WAY too long (shocker) but I finished it more because I wanted to say I didn't give up than I was enjoying it. So I guess that makes me a member of the "ability to withstand shite" group....

    The difference for me is that SK is easy to read, so plowing through the rest of the book wasn't difficult, just not enjoyable. As an example of a books that I didn't finish because they were too damned difficult I would list Joyce or Proust. Just didn't get them, and it was way too much work to read. I know others feel differently...