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9 Things That Happen When You Read

Nobel novelist explores what goes on in a reader's mind.

Woman reading

This book is more earnest than amusing, but perhaps the translation, culturally I mean, from the Turkish, just doesn't work perfectly for me.

Here is a sample, from a section of the book in which Pamuk dissects what takes place in our mind when we read a novel (abbreviated and freely paraphrased):


1. We observe the general scene and follow the narrative. Whether action-filled or more literary, we read all novels, Pamuk says, the same way: seeking out the meaning and main idea.

2. We transform words into images in our mind, completing the novel as our imaginations picture what the words are telling us.

3. Part of our mind wonders how much is real experience and how much is imagination. "A third dimension of reality slowly begins to emerge within us: the dimension of the complex world of the novel."

4. We wonder if the novel depicts reality as we know it. Is this scene realistic, could this actually happen?

5. We enjoy the precision of analogies, the power of narrative, the way sentences build upon one another, the music of the prose.

6. We make moral judgments about the characters' behavior, and about the novelist for his own moral judgments by way of the characters' actions and their consequences.

7. We feel successful when we understand the text, and we come to feel as though it was written just for us.

8. Our memory works hard to keep track of all the details, and in a well-constructed novel, everything connects to everything.

9. We search for the secret center of the novel, convinced that there is one. We hunt for it like a hunter searches for meaningful signs in the forest.


Pamuk focuses a lot on the importance of the secret center of a good literary novel. He also connects this idea to the creative process itself:

In the process of writing, we suddenly have new ideas about the deeper reaches and meaning of our book, about what it will imply when it is finished. Then we review and reconsider what we have already written, in light of this new center. For me, the task of writing entails gradually maneuvering the center into place by adding new passages, scenes, and details, finding new characters, identifying with them, removing and adding voices, composing new situations and dialogues while getting rid of others, and adding many things that I had not imagined when I began. ... If I realize that the center is too obvious, I hide it, and if the center is too obscure, I feel I must reveal it a little.

  • An excerpt from The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist

Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry