Reading novels, alone and in groups

Andrew Elfenbein

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The skills needed to read novels are surprisingly many and not easy to acquire. They require years of education and practice. Understanding even a simple novel needs complex skills: Following protagonists, settings, times, goals, and motives; making correct inferences and inhibiting wrong ones (however you define “correct” and “wrong”); using background knowledge to fill in what the novel leaves out; storing and retrieving information with no immediate use. Lacking any of these skills makes understanding novels impossible. In light of these barriers – and in light, too, of the many objections to novel reading expressed over the past three centuries – novels must promise a truly special experience for them to be worth the trouble. This chapter is about how readers describe that experience. It focuses on the continuities in response across different times periods, as well as on the differences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationA Companion to the English Novel
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781118607251
ISBN (Print)9781405194457
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. All rights reserved.


  • Absorption
  • Attention
  • Cognition
  • Distraction
  • Entertainment
  • Escapism
  • Morality
  • Reading comprehension
  • Reading groups
  • Working class


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