Immersion vs analysis – Tolkien and secondary worlds

Posted: June 26, 2014 in reading
Tags: , , , ,

There are as many different ways to read and understand a book as there are people reading it. But one of the big divisions, one that’s in the background of many discussions about teaching literature and enjoying books, is the difference between immersion and analysis.

Tolkien and secondary worlds – full immersion

J R R Tolkien was a huge advocate of immersion, and his attitude really helps us to understand what this is all about.

For Tolkien as a Christian and literary scholar, writing was an act of world building, a secondary creation that was a lesser reflection of God’s work in creating the world. The writer’s aim was to create secondary belief, an immersion in the story where you find yourself totally drawn in, almost believing in the words on the page.

We’ve all had that feeling at some time, that moment where you find yourself completely sucked in by a book, turning pages at an ever faster rate because you’re practically living the story. It’s an awesome feeling.

Studying literature – full analysis

Now think of the experience you got reading a book at high school, when you were studying it for a course. All that thinking about the text, looking for symbols and literary tricks, breaking away from the story to understand how it was presented. Despite his place as a literary scholar this wasn’t how Tolkien wanted people to experience his works. It disrupts that secondary belief, takes you out of the story.

But for me there’s a great pleasure in this sort of reading too. Feeling smart is enjoyable. I like the experience of picking something apart, of noticing how it fits together, of making new connections between the pieces. It’s a very different engagement with the text, but it is still engagement.

Stop spoiling my story

The problem is that you can’t really have both at once. You can’t immerse yourself completely in the story, attaining that prized secondary belief, if you’re paying attention to how it’s put together. It’s like seeing behind the scenes at the theatre or watching DVD extras – it destroys the illusion. I think it’s the problem with a lot of bad writing – the words intrude, preventing us from enjoying the story.

'That's for calling Brandon Sanderson a derivative hack!'

‘That’s for calling Brandon Sanderson a derivative hack!’

I think that this is also the source of some of the bad-natured discussions we see about books. If someone prefers to just be immersed in the book then an analytical comment threatens to disrupt that immersion. It creates a feeling of discomfort, especially if they don’t agree with the analysis. So they snap back, accuse people of being wrong or over-thinking it.  I’m sure it adds fuel to the fire of disputes around feminist analysis that I mentioned the other day – if an analysis disrupts your immersion in a text and threatens your world view then you’re going to be doubly edgy in your response.

Of course this cuts the other way too. When people who prefer immersion are dismissive or casually reject analytical responses they are rejecting what someone values, the intellectual endeavour they enjoy and the ideas that they have crafted. So this can create bad feeling on both sides.

This isn’t a problem to solve, it’s a part of human interactions to acknowledge. But if we notice it, openly discuss it, and are aware of it in the way that we discuss books, then I think we can have more enjoyable and productive discussions.

What do you think? Are you more immersive or analytical in your reading? How do they affect your experience? Share your thoughts below!



Photo by Paul Kitchener via Flickr creative commons

  1. Owen says:

    I read purely for escapism, to be carried away to another place for however long the story will last.
    I find analysis of literary style and symbolism fairly meaningless, or at least I feel a complete disconnect between why an author wrote something and what they wrote.
    If i enjoyed a story it matters little (to me) whether they were making cunning references and political commentary that I didn’t notice. If I do notice the references then that can jar with the narrative and knocks me out of the world I’ve climbed into.
    Analysis can be interesting from a historical or biographical viewpoint, but please let me finish the book/series first.

  2. everwalker says:

    I read for immersion, but when I’m writing I deliberately put in little things and symbolisms that would only be picked up by an analytical reader. I can read a book in both ways by making a deliberate choice at the start on which approach to take this time. Generally the first read-through is immersive, and the second is analytical.

    I remember being quite frustrated at school by the teacher’s determination to pull poems apart ‘to see how they worked’. I felt the poet never intended his work to be subjected to such microscopic inspection. And therein, for me at least, lies the key.

    If something is designed to be examined closely, it will reward the reader to do so. If the book isn’t designed as such, and can’t stand up to detailed scrutiny, it ruins any immersion enjoyment I might get from the book when reading with the analytical side switched off. The great books are the ones that can be read either way. The ones that can’t… well, it makes me sad when I’m brought to realise that something I enjoyed at first is not as good as I’d thought.

    That rambled. I hope it at least made sense!

  3. I’m an immersion person. I hated the analytical reading we had to do at school. I am analytical about other things, though. At the weekend, my wife decided to practice face painting. Daughter got butterflies, Son got a skull, I got a tank on my cheek 🙂 After I posted photos to Facebook, a couple of friends and I debated what type of tank it was. My wife knows little about tanks, and cares even less, but it gave us some enjoyment. Swapping comments like “The armour isn’t sloped enough for a T-34” amused us, and isn’t that the point?

    If you enjoy what you do, and don’t stop other people enjoying what they like, it’s all good. What does annoy me is when people try to tell others what they should or shouldn’t read.

    • glenatron says:

      I have enjoyed many books that I read and are immersed in, that brilliant experience when you are truly hooked on a book and cannot stop reading, when you simply have to know what happens next. With very good books, I will turn my analytical eye on them afterwards and start thinking about the details and the structure and maybe go back and read them again in that more considered way to seek out the corners of the story, the details of the characters and the structures and forms that lie underneath it.

      With truly great books, when I go back to read them analytically, I will get caught up in the story all over again like a swimmer drawn helplessly into the rapids and end up reading them simply for the joy of it once more.

  4. Dylan Hearn says:

    I’m an immersion person. I love becoming so enmeshed in a story it becomes difficult to distinguish between the real world and the one I’ve created in my head via the author’s words.
    One of my worries on starting my novel was that I would lose this ability. I had a similar experience joining a band many years ago. I’d loved music all my life but as soon as I started breaking down a piece of music into its component parts, I lost some of the magic. It’s hard to become emotionally involved in something when you know it only contains 3 chords.
    Thankfully I haven’t found this the case with reading and am currently living Kvothe’s adventures in The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

  5. skudssister says:

    I’m immersive – at least on a first read. I am also a re-reader (many times with some favourite books/series) and I positively relish the way that I can spot details which I missed on the first (or even the first eight) reading. I have always read for plot rather than purely for language – but, if I need to, I can be analytical. I did worry that analysing a book I love would destroy my ability to reread it immersively but, as others have pointed out, the greatest stories always live on…

  6. I’m an analytical person, I think. I like to consider the mechanics and structure of what’s going on, the systems of belief and magic, the presence of anything that could possibly be a hint. I don’t know — I can’t seem to just go with the flow of a book (unless it absolutely sweeps me away or is obviously not meant for analysis) because I’m constantly spinning out my own ideas of where this is going and what it’s supposed to mean. It might be from being a writer myself, since I’m endlessly analytical there, and like to seed all sorts of hints and references into my own stuff — so in a way I expect that from other writers and am always vigilant for that sort of thing. I enjoy it!

    As a writer though, I know most people aren’t reading for such tricksiness, or particularly for any meta analysis, so I try not to ruminate on that stuff too much in my narration. My characters, though, have very strong opinions, and have been known to shout at each other on analytical subjects dear to their hearts. So far I think that’s worked out well.

  7. malwen says:

    I am for immersion. English Lit was the school subject I was better at than others, but I refused pressure to study it further because I got fed up with the analysis – particularly when teachers seemed to have read the mind of a dead author to the extent that they told me what she or he had intended by their words. I like books I can escape into for a while.

  8. Thanks for all the interesting responses folks. I deliberately haven’t replied to any individual point because I think this quite a personal thing, and I don’t want to jump in with my views on your views on a sensitive subject. But it’s really interesting to read the variety of perspectives and the reasons behind them.

  9. Sue Archer says:

    What a lot of great comments! Like many others here, I favour immersion. The best books are ones that pull me in so that I don’t think about them until afterwards. Then I sometimes analyze what I liked about the story. I found that in grad school a lot of the emphasis was on texts that were full of fodder for analysis but could not immerse me. I could technically appreciate the artistry, but that’s not why I read. I read for emotional satisfaction.

  10. Immersion is what works for me and, I suspect, for most people. As you briefly touched on, though, poor editing, grammar, punctuation, etc. can jar and distract from that immersion. Too many indie authors (and I know there can be errors from traditional publishers as well, just not as many) let themselves down by not paying sufficient attention to that detail – and I say that as an Indie. I am trying to read much more indie work, but find myself regularly cursing things that have no bearing on the story itself. Not specifically what you are talking about here, but I felt it was worth adding. Keep up your thought-provoking posts.

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