`DO readers live the good life?'' In his study of the psychology of reading for pleasure, Victor Nell gives one answer. Lost in a Book (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., $32.50) is full of statistics and flowcharts based on recent research, but the point of view is humanistic in the vulgar sense. Nell champions ``ludic'' reading - homo ludens being a popular phrase for man as a playful, creative, festive, leisure-loving animal. He cheerfully dismisses the value judgments implicit in the ``good literature'' and ``trash'' labels. He discusses the continuity of the reading experience, from newspapers to ``Finnegans Wake.'' He rejects the Protestant work ethic because it takes the fun out of reading.
Ludic reading allows us to escape self-consciousness and the demands of the here-and-now. Reading is a form of ``sovereignty,'' Nell says, a kind of daydreaming. But ludic readers aren't completely passive. They linger when they like. The best-loved passages are read more slowly than others, according to his research.
His findings rarely require comment. He notes that ``great minds usually command large vocabularies, and complex thoughts are more readily accommodated by long sentences than by short ones.'' And yet when the great mind is a modern one trying to mimic ``primary process'' such as fantasy and dream, the results are not ludic. ``Finnegans Wake'' does not give much pleasure to many people.
Like publishers everywhere, Nell is talking about books that sell. And yet as the editors of ``The Algonkian'' suggest (Louis Rubin is one), the pleasures of publishing can't be separated from the pride they take in publishing good books. And by ``good'' they mean ``important, good, worthwhile....''
In the second number of this nicely printed little booklet (gratis to ``such as care to receive it'' for the asking from Taylor Publishing Company, 1550 West Mockingbird Lane, Dallas, TX 75325), there are discussions of several recent Algonquin books, the Algonquin Literary Quiz (plus the answers), the second installment of ``Vicki Goes into Publishing,'' and a tail piece called ``Sit Yourself Down and Listen.'' In this last is considered ``the South's most notable product'' - language. Stump oratory, pulpit oratory, the language of ``demagogues and charismaticians,'' it all seems to go back to ``an unconscious striving for rhythm.''
``From a little after two o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon,'' begins William Faulkner's ``Absalom, Absalom!'' The sentence ends 113 words later. Following Faulkner's long sentences may give rise to a sado-masochistic theory of literary pleasure, but pleasure nonetheless.
Perhaps Nell overlooked one of the sources of reading pleasure. He left out ``performance.'' Enacting the sentences, either verbally or just mentally, almost as an actor would, fuses sound and sense and admits the reader into the awe of art. We all have ``an unconscious striving for rhythm'' and Nell's theory of absorption and trance should embrace the way rhythm carves meaning out of the mute flow of time.
Nell's readers like to fuse with the point of view of a formula character or author. They don't like old books or books that are culturally alien. But legitimate difficulty stems from the nature of words. The same words can make different people think of different things. The same words can mean different things at different times.
In Pastoral and Ideology (University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif., $45), Annabel Patterson demonstrates how the simplest, most innocent-looking kind of po-etry - Virgil's ``Eclogues,'' pastoral lyrics about shepherds and sheep - involves the good reader in politics, religion, and sex, as well as sheep.
Pastoral poetry should be pure escape, but Virgil, who composed the poems in the wake of the murder of Julius Caesar, opens his collection with a stark vignette picturing two shepherds, one at ease with his flock, the other driving his goats into exile. He's been evicted from his farm to pay soldiers returning from foreign wars. Patterson shows how successive poets, commentators, and artists - Petrarch, Marot, Spenser, Crabbe, Wordsworth, Val'ery, Simone Martini, Caspar David Friedrich, Blake, Jacques Villon - followed Virgil's opening gambit.
Patterson looks hard at the use of eclogues by artists in exile, as well as by readers who want a green thought in a green shade, an escape. She notes the flurry of interest in these poems in times of troubles - during the Vietnam war and after, for example.
Patterson's attention to detail of every sort is bracing, exact, and eloquent. Her focus on the histori-cal and political may blind her to a whole dimension. Take eclogue No. 4. St. Augustine, no mean exegete, thought it prefigured the birth of Christ. (In Dante's ``Divine Comedy,'' Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory.) These Christians saw references to the Virgin, the Christ child, the serpent, primal deceit, Isaiah-like prophecies, and ideas about the Millennium.
Modern editors say it was written for the emperor Augustus. The identity of the child may be a red herring; Virgil could be expressing hope beyond hope. Elsewhere Patterson rejects the ``ideology'' behind Aristide Maillol's visual interpretations, considering it elitist and naive. Virgil has attracted great artists, and Patterson's discussions, along with the illustrations, are perceptive.
Still, Virgil probably saw further than she does. He saw through history. His eclogues are as difficult as we want to make them. They have afforded much pleasure to many for a long, long time.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.