Sliding Otter News April 9, 2011

Why We Like to Read Mysteries


Port Authority Traveler Statues

The final mystery is oneself. ~ Oscar Wilde


As a writer, I am in the habit of reading quite a few books. It occurred to me that many of them are mysteries, although I wander into other genres from time to time. Reading the paper on Sunday, I noticed how many of the best sellers are mysteries. I guess I am not alone in my reading interests.

Then I started to wonder why so many of us are attracted to mysteries. I had never thought much about it before. Why now? I guess it is just one of life’s mysteries. I did a little research on people’s reasons for reading mysteries. I found more reasons than I expected to. I also found some thoughts of fiction authors.

PD James saw mystery novels as being about the “restoration of order.” She thought we all wished our lives were as orderly as solving a fictional crime. Umberto Eco saw such reading as the process of moving from mystery to resolution. The critic David Lodge stated, “A solved mystery is ultimately reassuring to readers, asserting the triumph of reason over instinct, of order over anarchy…”

Readers see reading mysteries as a chance for thrills, escape from everyday life, the challenge of a puzzle, a chance to use problem solving skills, logic, math and pattern recognition. Some like to see how the authors adhere to or improvise on the conventions of the genre. It’s a little like learning to appreciate Chinese Art. Readers of mystery series enjoy getting to know and love characters such as Jack Reacher and Kay Scarpetta.

So what does all this say about us? Like everything else we do we can all do the same thing for many different reasons. Our most common motivation seems to be watching logic sort out messy details and make sense of them. Most of us would like to have an orderly world. We like watching characters put the pieces together and matching wits with them to see if we can unravel the mystery before they do.

Our lives so often seem out of kilter, off balance and not making much sense. We would prefer predictable lives and would like to know what to expect next. Well, maybe we all don’t. Some of us like surprises and would like our lives to be a constant adventure. Sometimes what happens in our lives seems quite logical and expected. Sometimes what happens to us remains quite mysterious and never has a satisfactory explanation. I think of these as life’s mysteries. Many of these are not of earth-shaking importance but certainly keep us on our toes.

We look for explanation in religion, science, comparing notes with our friends and in the arts. As long as we are still wondering about life, we are still alive. How much more interesting is it to find our lives fascinating than to plod along like robots?

Life Lab Lessons

  • How often do you read mysteries?
  • What are you looking for when you open one?
  • What character seems most like you?
  • Who would you like to be?
  • When you read, what do you learn about your own life?




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