Immersion vs analysis – Tolkien and secondary worlds

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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