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August 2, 2004 [feather]
Why read?

Mark Edmundson, author of the pedagogically reverent coming-of-age memoir Teacher, is publishing a new, fortuitously-timed book entitled Why Read?. He summarized his main point yesterday in The New York Times:

To me, the best way to think about reading is as life's grand second chance. All of us grow up once: we pass through a process of socialization. We learn about right and wrong and good and bad from our parents, then from our teachers or religious guides. Gradually, we are instilled with the common sense that conservative writers like Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson thought of as a great collective work. To them, common sense is infused with all that has been learned over time through trial and error, human frustration, sorrow and joy. In fact, a well-socialized being is something like a work of art.

Yet for many people, the process of socialization doesn't quite work. The values they acquire from all the well-meaning authorities don't fit them. And it is these people who often become obsessed readers. They don't read for information, and they don't read for beautiful escape. No, they read to remake themselves. They read to be socialized again, not into the ways of their city or village this time but into another world with different values. Such people want to revise, or even to displace, the influence their parents have had on them. They want to adopt values they perceive to be higher or perhaps just better suited to their natures.

When Walt Whitman picked up the work of his older contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was a carpenter, framing two- and three-room houses in Brooklyn. He had been a journalist; he had written some mediocre fiction -- he looked to be someone who would never amount to much. After reading the great essays, Whitman purportedly said: ''I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.''

Whitman had been reared to be modest and self-effacing. But Emerson offered him a new image of authority. He was, for a while, Whitman's second father. Obviously it takes more than reading a book to create a Walt Whitman. But the act of reading Emerson was still at the center of what is probably the most marvelous transformation in the history of literature.

Whitman's conversion experience is as typical as it is dramatic: Hordes of people who undergo transformative reading experiences emerge from them wanting to write in such a way that they do unto others what someone else's writing has just done to them. What's "marvelous" about Whitman's transformation is that his experience of a genuinely commonplace impulse--the feeling of inspiration that washes over one when one reads something really good--did not produce in the aspiring writer commonplace, derivative results.

Edmundson's choice of Whitman as an example doubles back on itself in a manner perhaps unintended: Surely the transformative effects of reading are not only useful insofar as they turn people into aspiring writers. There is something insular in that, something that undercuts the premise that reading is a self-socializing act.

I am reminded of a passage from Cynthia Ozick's Puttermesser Papers, in which the eponymous heroine dreams about a heaven that consists of an eternity spent reading an unending stack of books while consuming an inexhaustible supply of chocolate. It's an image of consumption without consequence (Puttermesser's teeth will never rot, she will never grow fat), cost (in paradise, the books are free, chocolate is free, and there is all the time in the world), or return (Puttermesser never aims to talk about what she reads, or to share her books with others, or to write something herself, or even to stop consuming long enough to digest what she has read). Ozick's portrait of a reader's paradise is a picture of indiscriminate gobbling, and as such it is both profoundly anti-social and massively regressive: book as breast. It's a funny image--but in its sheer extremity it reveals a lot about how readers, and reading, are often regarded in a society that is as wrapped up in the display of work and work-related social performances as ours is.

Edmundson appears to be interested in doing the timely and necessary work of refashioning the idea of reading for a public that is losing whatever sense it might once have had that reading is, in itself, a positive good (see the comments to my post on the NEA's recent study on the decline of literary reading in America for examples). And he seems to be interested in doing this work by recasting reading as a seriously social, not to mention socially responsible, behavior--one that can help readers think about what it means to be a social being, and that can even help them rework their own social selves.

There is a lot of George Eliot underwriting that idea. But that's another post. For now, I'll just open the discussion up to readers: How social is reading? Is it an isolating, anti-social activity, or is it, in its quiet way, a profoundly communal act? Is there a value merely in the act of reading, independent of content? If so, how would you describe that value? Why read? Why do you personally read--or, why do you personally not read?

posted on August 2, 2004 8:27 AM


The idea of reading as a "second chance" is an interesting and probably valid one. So...by failing to teach reading properly, the schools are failing to provide this second chance for precisely those who need it most.

Posted by: David Foster at August 2, 2004 12:24 PM

I personally believe that reading is one of many means of acquiring experience. A good book will teach you something about the human condition (particularly Pratchett. :) ) Given the choice between reading and doing, I prefer doing for the most part.

However, given my reading history (close to 200 books a year), I would forgive anyone who thinks it's the other way around.

As to whether reading is a social activity, I think that is dependent upon the person involved. A person who is naturally inclined to be social - or who is attempting to learn to be social - can use reading as a goal, whether it is used to expand horizons or as a conversation starter. A person who is not social will likely not talk about books or knowledge gleaned from books.

As they say, "It depends..."

Posted by: B. Durbin at August 2, 2004 3:01 PM

This all seems improperly framed (not to denigrate Whitman's carpentry): First off, the notion of "socialization" puts the onus on the reader to adapt, when the reader is in fact choosing to engage a specific emanation of culture. Does socialization consist in defining oneself with respect to society, or conversely? Literary reading is also inherently different than other cultural modes in its potentiality for dialogue (which does not require the reader to write in order to participate); but, in the context of social interaction, it is, in and of itself, simulacrum, artificial, limited. These attributes are, however, critical to its ability to inform, rationally, noncoercively. But in this light Mr. Edmundson's essay seems to differ little from Shaq "goofily chasing down the last page of a novel."

Posted by: nnyhav at August 2, 2004 3:50 PM

I think this last post embodies the problems that accompany too much reading in isolation. (Sorry, I have very little patience for grad-speak.) Anyway, I spent much of the past year examining this issue under the instruction of our very own Erin, and what I found was that fiction can only have a socializing impact when it is performed in a very specific way. In other words, it must depict life as it is. This was a goal that George Eliot and Henry James shared, and I think their fiction still speaks to us because it derives from a thorough acquaintance with society and requires us to apply what we learn from reading to our own relationships. James's work is perhaps more conducive to a second socialization, especially since contemplation and conversation occur simultaneously in his novels, while in Eliot's the two seem to exist as separate entities. Nevertheless, fiction that concerns itself principally with human relationships will ultimately always alter how we perceive ourselves in the world.

This is not to say, however, that reading is without danger. Reading cultivates a particular insularity; it sometimes prevents one from understanding the daily ups and downs that people living under the shackles of corporate America encounter. Both Cynthia Ozick and A.S. Byatt call attention to this fact. Ozick's Puttermesser is only able to love someone who shares her passion for books; similarly, Byatt's Roland can only love someone who understands the arcane world of scholarly investigation. And, even when these two find their soulmates, the reader still senses their dissatisfaction. It's almost as if the love they possess exists solely for things literary.

Returning to my initial point, I think the culture of the American academy is particularly indicative of the dangers of excessive reading. Most of its members are lonely, unhappy, and out of touch with the things that propel the lives of their peers. This dissatisfaction with the general state of affairs stems from an inclination to take solace in words rather than in people. As someone who spends a great deal of time reading, I find myself constantly questioning--or, to be more specific, challenging--the relationships I've cultivated during my life, simply because my activities as a reader have conditioned me to approach every situation I encounter with skepticism. Contemplation in moderation can only enhance one's state of being, but excessive philosophizing, as Thomas Mann will attest, is destructive. I think it's important to encourage reading, but not under the guise of re-socialization.

Posted by: Chris at August 2, 2004 7:47 PM

"the daily ups and downs that people living under the shackles of corporate America encounter"...what exactly are you trying to say here, and how is it relevant to your point about reading? Do think there are (non-corporate American) societies in which people *don't* encounter "daily ups and downs"? Perhaps European feudalism? Native American tribalism? Various forms of socialism? Some projected utopia?

Posted by: David Foster at August 2, 2004 8:24 PM

Let me just note by way of modest provocation that exalting reading as experience is in fact really quite harmonious with the theoretical underpinnings of at least some forms of postmodernist critical theory. I'll want to read the book to see if he's gone beyond his 1997 piece in Harper's, but even if there is some way to refuse the exaltation of reading-as-experience equalling the proposition that each reading creates a new text, and has no more authority than the next such reading, you still have a problem here. It is the problem I have with the idea that the study of literature should be centrally about the love of literature. How do you turn that passion into a form of disciplinary study with shared norms, practices, and techniques? How do you distinguish between the mere love of literature and an "informed" or scholarly love of literature?

How do you differentiate between experiences of literature in such a way as to maintain the proposition that there is a scholarly experience that is both different and in some sense more authoritative than any other? If you can't, then fine...but recognize that this kind of argument is essentially folding the tents of academic literary studies once and for all.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at August 2, 2004 9:09 PM

Doin' the puh-leeze in different voices: surely Azar Nafisi's run at the top of the paperback bestseller list speaks volumes.

Posted by: nnyhav at August 2, 2004 9:42 PM

In response to Foster:

My point was that most Americans work in the corporate world in some capacity and that people who read too much--probably someone like you--can't relate to them. (See, you're already reading too much into what I say.)

Posted by: Chris at August 2, 2004 10:00 PM

I would agree with B. Durbin: "it depends."

There are various cities who have adopted the idea that reading a single book citywide might help build community. See the one in Baltimore, for instance. But these programs seem premised on the idea that it is reading the same book together at the same time which is socializing, not the mere act of reading itself. I wonder if Edmundson would simply think of such programs as the attempt of "well-meaning authorities" to turn the act of reading into another mode of socialization.

As for why I read, I wouldn't say that it is always to displace or subvert values I've received from other sources of social authority: sometimes books help me rediscover those values or see them distilled in a more compelling way. I've been known to seek out books, in fact, that I have reason to believe might shore up my faith in verities that are presently adrift. Other times, of course, I have an experience of seeing the world differently thanks to the author. To return to B. Durbin, I guess, "it depends," not only on the reader but on the book.

Posted by: Caleb at August 2, 2004 11:06 PM

For me, I read because it makes time pass more slowly, and this is usually through prose narrative. So much happens in an hour of reading; by comparison, television and film crawl.

Posted by: George at August 3, 2004 1:24 AM

"My point was that most Americans work in the corporate world in some capacity and that people who read too much--probably someone like you--can't relate to them."

There are plenty of excessive readers who work in the corporate world. I'm probably one. I can't relate to myself?

Posted by: Laura at August 3, 2004 7:38 AM

I'm glad that Edmundson believes that only a select few people will want to "re-make" themselves into something outside of their initial socialization -- and that these folks become excessive readers. What a ridiculous claim on so many levels! Why readers? Why not, say, excessive collectors of pre-WWII race music 78s? See *Ghost World* for a great vision of re-making oneself through such music.

And doesn't the omnipresence of mid-life (and now, "quarter-life") crises attest to the fact that the vast majority of folks end up feeling contrained by their socialization?

And isn't socialization itself more an ongoing process of, as Wilson Harris puts it, "infinite rehearsals" than an event that occurs in discrete blocks?

Saying that excessive readers want to transform themselves is simply a roundabout way of repeating the old chestnut that readers of novels want to escape the real world. And that's just a gross generalization about reading habits. I'd venture that most "excessive readers" consume different materials for different reasons. I know I want very different things from Thomas Pynchon than I want from, say, Walter Mosley or Philip Kerr or Susan McCrumb. So that while I can't stop myself from constantly reading, I'm not always reading in the same manner or for the same reasons. And when it comes to remaking myself, I find fashion and music far more important than my addiction to the printed word.

Posted by: Morty at August 3, 2004 8:55 AM


Of course I'm speaking in generalizations, but one can't help doing so in matters such as this. With regard to your question, it all depends on how you read and what you read. Although you may devote your free time to consuming novels, I think it's very likely that what you glean from them is very different from what someone working in an academic capacity takes. The people who tend to read excessively, to devote their lives to high literature, are most often professional students. Should you be such a reader, you are nevertheless an outlier. Statistics--ones publicized on this website--show that 38% of American men read one novel per year. I'm almost certain that more statistics, which show that most of these men don't read because their career and domestic responsibilities hinder them from doing so, can easily be gathered. How can you suggest, then, that no disparity exists between people who make a life of reading and people who either read as means of escape or who lack the time and energy to open a book?

Posted by: Chris at August 3, 2004 10:40 AM

Chris...isn't there some middle ground between "making a life of reading" and "reading as a means of escape?" There are plenty of people in the corporate world who are serious readers, and I suspect there are plenty of people in academia who don't read all that much outside of the things required to be with-it in their specific fields.

Posted by: David Foster at August 3, 2004 11:23 AM

I read a lot of books, some escapist, some not. Mostly fiction. I find that even when the fiction is not in the least bit applicable to the current scene, I can get a lot from my reading. I find that reading causes me to actually look at the world and try to analyze what is going on, what should be going on and how to get from one to the other.

As an example of someone I have gotten a great deal from, read the mystery/adventure novels of John D McDonald. He wrote mostly escapist fiction, but he also wrote a great deal on the environmental desecrations that are being visited on the state of Florida and especially on the Everglades. He writes a lot about how we need to keep the natural world alive to keep our lives worthwhile. After reading his books, I look in a different way at the natural world around me.

I also see a lot about the relationships between people in the books I read, whether the author is good at describing them or is a total dunce at making sense of them. Thinkinhg about them makes me take a different look at how I relate to other people as well.

I have a friend who is a sucker for all these self-help, pseudo psychoanalytical books about ten minutes to a new relationship, etc. I told her once that she could probably get more good ideas from a couple of fiction books than from all these other books she reads but she said they were nonfiction and therefore more helpful. Her life is screwed and she keeps making worse decisions but she still sticks to her nonfiction reading, self-help (Wayne Dyer comes to mind).

Posted by: dick at August 3, 2004 12:38 PM

I think most of us do our discretionary reading to amuse, divert, and sublimate. Of course we also read to learn, but when we read nonfiction for fun we choose how rigorous we want the experience to be, we decide whether we want to breeze through the material or master it, and we don't have to finish books that don't engage us. But regular readers will opt to read at the expense of other voluntary diversions. That reading time could be spent watching TV, going to a movie, exercising, shopping, or socializing, but no matter how busy we are, a lot of us always protect time for reading. We make reading a priority that displaces other recreations and sometime in preference to meeting obligations. It must do something pleasurable.

I don't think reading results in a sound new persona for a reader very often, but almost all of us can see how many more options life has offered than we have realized, we see the consequences of choices made by others more clearly than we see own on, and we get to probe into the motives and thoughts of others more than daily life allows. I suspect reading is a form of structured escape and voyeurism- like a dream, but under better control. Whatever the reasons, it is one of the few activities that aging improves as the more you read, the more you enjoy how the process works, the larger your vocabulary is, the more you see the choices authors had and how they handled them. Literature is immortal and we get to time travel and linger in the places and with the people we choose.

Barbara Tuchman says: "Without books, history is silent, literature is dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill."

Posted by: koregon at August 4, 2004 12:13 AM

There are times when one must dispense contempt with literature, because of the large numbers of those in need of it!

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel once observed, during the koldness generated by the kommunist prison cells:
Hope is the ability to work for something just because it is right, whether it stands a chance of succeeding or not.

If a book do not give you hope, you are reading a wrong book!

The idea in the book does not have to be big. It just has to tell you why everything is crazy and how to change the world for the better!

Posted by: Jozef at August 8, 2004 2:57 AM

To read deeply and well is to live a thousand lives. No one can possibly get enough first hand experience in one lifetime to make any real sense out of the world. If you don't care about making sense, or if you are content with some pre-packaged explanation (Christian, left wing, or whatever) then I guess you don't need to read. But if you want to know for yourself, then you better start reading (and reading the best that is out there), and you better start thinking about what you have read.

Posted by: Burl Horniachek at August 9, 2004 5:46 PM

Would anyone be willing to venture a guess as to the top 10 reasons why 'we as people' will pick up a book? What is it that motivates us to read?

The reason I ask is that I am currently looking into the reasons why society is turning from printed books to audio books, and I whilst have my theories why society is making a switch to audio (lifestyle changes, preference for a different learning modality etc), I would be interested to hear (read) other people's viewpoints...

Posted by: Chris Rhyss at October 14, 2004 3:45 AM