Beyond the Pleasure Principle: One Woman’s Reading History


by Rose Garrett

I recently read that revenge, in addition to sex and food, stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, which explains why the settling of scores is often pursued with as much unbounded enthusiasm as philandering and doughnut holes. To that short list I would add book-reading, which might appear more high-minded than the rest, but which has revealed itself to me to be as base, vulgar, and fucking incredible as any of the seven sins.

Children are encouraged to believe that reading is good for them, like community service, flossing and green beans—and as with these things, that implication is often enough to turn them off completely. But when I began reading as a child, books were less about exploring the human condition than they were about the pulse-quickening, mind-reeling pleasures of suspense, imagination, and assured gratification. Reading was an immoderate, late-night indulgence of sweaty palmed, pupil-dilating gluttony. No matter if the prose was workmanlike and the themes well-trodden. No matter that J. R. R. Tolkien’s characters were static archetypes, C. S. Lewis’s plots were exasperatingly moralistic, and J. K. Rowling’s books became stultifyingly popular. Books were a drug, and civilized society was the pusher. And I got really really high.

Freud’s concept of the “pleasure principle” maintains that to some extent our actions are governed not by reason, but by an abiding pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of discomfort and pain. Food, drugs, sex, and video games are the pleasure incentives of choice for many adults, and each of these can become addictive to the exclusion of exterior reality. My personal history of pleasure-reading-abuse confirms that it shares features with all of the above: foregoing social opportunities to hole up alone; bingeing to the point of delirium; losing myself in an illusory world; waking up blearily the next morning, catching sight of my book, and wondering, “What the fuck happened last night?”

sigmund-freud-nov-27-2007Not all books lend themselves to literary benders. Or maybe it’s that not all readers feel the effects. As a young reader, not surprisingly, fantasy books with an abundance of wizards, swords, and talking animals was my catnip. I craved the comforting, structured pleasure of stories where virtue is rewarded, ordinariness is surmountable, and the forces of good and evil are etched in unsubtle diametric opposition. If a character skulks, looms, or sports a black cloak, you can be damn well sure he’s an agent of evil. If the protagonist is thrown into company with an attractive but prickly member of the opposite sex, you can pretty much bet they’ll be getting it on by book’s end. These books are predictable in their rewards, but varied enough in their plots to keep readers wriggling expectantly on the hook. They tamp down anxieties by simultaneously introducing conflict and guaranteeing resolution, pairing “What’s going to happen?” with “Whatever it is, I’m going to like it.”

Easy pleasure, however, leaves little room for growth, and maturing adolescents and educated adults are encouraged to venture past the safety of snug plots and simplistic ideologies. Postponing gratification for hard-earned gains isn’t easy, whether it’s in intellectual growth and emotional depth or a steady paycheck. But with maturity, according to Freud, comes the “reality principle,” pleasure’s grim repo man, where the exigencies of life take center stage and personal pleasures must regularly take a rain check.

The transition to literary novels, like adolescence itself, was a strange and uncomfortable process. After exhausting library shelves of fantasy trilogies, cat mysteries, and low-hanging YA fruit, I moved on to the adult section’s more high-minded fiction. This proved to be thematically and structurally jarring, especially since I had no concept of my own preferences, and chose books mostly by their cover art. More importantly, these books were work—and I wasn’t used to having to invest before seeing dividends.

But what about reading? Bruegel's "The Seven Deadly Sins"

But what about reading? Bruegel's "The Seven Deadly Sins"

Literary novels, which I still sometimes think of as “grown-up books,” tend to require more commitment, focus, and willingness to set aside easy pleasures than your typical swashbuckler. In these books, characters are often unlikable, plots stunted, romances ill-fated, short-lived, or absent altogether. Protagonists are untrustworthy or fatally flawed. The facile dichotomy of good and evil is supplanted by a set of self-interested entities, led by personal incentives along convergent or divergent paths. The drama is psychological, emotional, aesthetic, or all of these.

The alienation, violence, trickery and weird sex that I encountered in these books made me leery, at times, of the whole sorry necessity of growing up. If literary novels set out to more closely approximate reality, I wasn’t so sure reality was for me. But although Freud stated that “an ego thus educated has become reasonable; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle,” he lets on that the reality principle “also at bottom seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed.”*

Gradually, I found the pleasures, and there are many, in more demanding literature, which offers great rewards to readers and is not always so arduous as it seemed when I was fourteen. Well-honed, drum-tight sentences that twang like a bowstring provide more adventuresome reading than many conventional tales of derring-do. And there are no better moments in reading than encountering an idea or feeling one has had, but never really recognized until the moment when it suddenly hums in counterpoint to the written word.

Back to reality?

By the time I entered college, I was primed and ready to take on the knotty questions behind life, literature, and the uniquely human urge to write and read. I majored in Comparative Literature, an interdisciplinary catchall of literary theory, literature in translation, foreign language, and literature and the other arts. I took classes with names like “European Modernism and the World” and “Itineraries of Postmodernism.” I wrote papers, with only a pinch of irony, about hypertext, “the unpresentable,” the death of the author, and the subaltern. I read books that drove me bonkers, like de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, and others, like To the Lighthouse, that blew my mind to pieces and put it back together, better.

After graduation, however, I felt suddenly adrift in a non-academic world where my interests and talents were meaningless, and my intellectual investments in default. My shelves were full of Duras and Dazai, Kafka and Soyinka. But I felt drained and weak-willed. I felt the pull of easy pleasure. I picked up a book, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, about a young WWII nurse who falls through a Scottish circle of stones, travels back in time 200 years, and falls in love with an unusually tall and virile highlander. Yes. Not really Harlequin grade material, but closer to it than, say, Infinite Jest. I quickly fell off the wagon and went back to my old ways. Freud might have called it, returning to the pleasure principle.

The kind of books that thrilled me as a child now operated as a kind of literary security blanket, which I clung to through apartment stress, job hunting, and a breakup. As I read, I worried that I might be regressing emotionally to a pre-pubescent state, and wondered if I was betraying some sort of intellectual obligation to elevated literature. Could rereading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at age 23 do damage to my brain? As these anxieties grew, I self-medicated: I read more books.

Rose's guilty pleasure

Rose's guilty pleasure

But while easy reading, my substance abuse of choice, shares the pleasures of other good-to-be-bad activities like drugs and overeating, it really doesn’t carry a price. No physical dependencies form, no diseases are transmitted, arteries don’t clog and livers don’t fail. My reading compulsion doesn’t hurt others. And the distinction between pleasure and reality, high-minded literary novels and page-turners, is much more porous than I had allowed myself to see. Just because a book is pleasurable to read doesn’t mean it lacks depth, just as a book that demands extra reader effort doesn’t always deserve it. Books, like people, are all different, and what I read does less to define me than it does the changing moods and circumstances of any life. I’m a person who likes different kinds of books at different times, for different reasons—and that’s okay.

These days, I feel ready to work harder for the returns I get out of good books. After all, some things are more important than quick pleasure. I’ve got a whole list of books I want to read, and I’m excited to tackle the stack. I just need to get through Twilight, and then I’ll get started.


[* Freud is quoted from his Introductory Lectures on Psychology, translated by James Strachey]

Rose Garrett is a writer living in San Francisco. She has worked as a barista, literary agency intern, ESL tutor, and caterer at wealthy children’s parties. She currently works as a staff writer and editor at

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