I once had a friend who liked to shape his reading experience around that of the characters in the book. i.e. he never read Raymond Chandler without a good bottle of scotch by his side – and a large packet of cigarettes. Jane Austen didn’t make sense to him, he said, unless he was kitted out in full Regency regalia. And if music is mentioned in the text (for example, Gide’s La Symphonie Pastorale) he had to have that music playing in the background.
In this sense, my friend was an exemplary active reader. But – as I used to argue, incessantly – he ought to have made a greater effort to see things from the other side: to employ oppositional as well as complimentary juxtapositions. Which is to say: Raymond Chandler while eating hot cross buns, Jane Austen while dressed as a goth and Gide while listening to modern jazz funk. For variation lies at the heart of active reading. As I have stressed so many times: it isn’t about finding the best conditions for reading, but exploring a range of them.
Of course, some writers have gone down my friend’s path; trying to bring their readers further into the work by manipulating the conditions in which their text is consumed. Oa Aayorta is a good example. In his second novel, An Everlasting Evening, he invites readers to make the dishes mentioned by the food-loving hero – and to eat them as they read the next chapter. At the time of its publication, I praised the book for ‘creating a synthesis of language and taste unprecedented in the history of culture’. Whilst I have no intention of withdrawing that statement, it is worth noting that Aayorta’s methods do have their downside. Follow them and you are guaranteed a great reading experience. But there is just as much to be said for not following them also. Second time round you ought to ditch the writer’s instructions and go your own way. Third time round, go another way. Fourth time, yet another.
There is, and should be, no set way of reading a novel.