I was built by books. I grew up in a small house in a winding valley a long way from anywhere. My childhood, though idyllic, was small and sheltered. But in one essential way my world was unfathomably huge, so large that I could never hope to reach its edge: I could read. The characters in the books I read had lives nothing like my own. They lived in far-off places like Sydney and Paris and ‘Connecticut’. They rode horses and had swordfights and danced the lead role in the Nutcracker. They ate food I’d never heard of, and used words I didn’t know, and they showed me there was a world outside the one I lived in, an infinite world full of infinite possibilities. The books I read as a child and a teen shaped the way I saw myself, and the way I understood my place in the world. They taught me how to live.
I wasn’t a discerning reader; I read anything that crossed my path. I read brick-sized fantasy novels from one aunt’s bookshelves, and Mills & Boon-style romances from another’s. I raced through every Baby-Sitters Club book I could get my hands on. In class I read Homer and Shakespeare and Austen; at recess it was Rowling and Marsden and Marchetta. I read constantly: during school, on the bus, in bed, up a tree in the back paddock when I was supposed to be feeding the chooks. There’s a photograph of me at age 15, sitting on a couch amidst the chaos of my cousin’s second birthday party, blissfully reading Anna Karenina. I wasn’t ashamed of my reading, but nor was I proud of it; it was just what I did.
It wasn’t until I got to university that I realised I’d been reading wrong.
I hadn’t known, until then, that there was a right way to read. But the grisly truth soon became obvious. However many books I had on my shelves, they weren’t enough to qualify me as well read. I had never read Kafka. I had never read Proust. I had never even heard of David Foster Wallace. What ‘literary’ novels I had encountered I had read mostly for enjoyment, or occasionally under academic duress (Heart of Darkness, anyone?), but I had never before been confronted by a canon of works that I was obligated not only to read, but to revere.
However many books I had on my shelves, they weren’t enough to qualify me as well read.
I never did read most of those books, but I learned to hide my ignorance, and to dampen my enthusiasm for the unfashionable books I had previously loved. I learned never to answer honestly when asked to name my favourite novel at the beginning of a Literature tutorial. I learned to feel shame both about what I had read and what I hadn’t.
I was reminded of this shame recently as I followed a debate happening across various US lit mags about the ‘purpose’ of reading. It began with ‘On Not Reading,’ in which Yale English academic Amy Hungerford contends that refusing to read certain books can be an act of moral resistance against ‘the self-perpetuating machine of literary celebrity’. Hungerford argues that literary scholars, who are ‘protected from market imperatives’ by tenure, should ‘refuse, in a reasoned and deliberate way, to read what the literary press and the literary marketplace put forward as worthy of attention’.
Hungerford’s suggestion that readers should be discerning about what they read, because there will never be enough time to read everything, is uncontroversial. But her deeply moralistic explanation of the higher purpose of the scholarly reader – separate to the unwashed masses of the general public, who can’t help but be driven by market forces to read works which are unworthy of scholarly consideration – reeks of the kind of elitism so prevalent inside the lit-world bubble. The general public may read, but only those in the know read things that are truly worth reading.
In a rebuttal essay, ‘In Praise of Not Not Reading’, Sheila Liming plunges deeper down the rabbit-hole of academic elitism, positing a dichotomy between writers and readers and claiming the moral high ground for the latter, whose efforts apparently go unrecognised. ‘Our universities, like the larger culture that supports and depends upon them, do not have the structural wherewithal to recognise the work of reading as work,’ she says. ‘Tenure committees don’t care about it; grants are not won by it, and riches do not wait in store for the patient and dedicated reader.’
I don’t know what books Liming is reading, to be unable to find riches in their pages. The idea that reading doesn’t have value because one isn’t being paid to do it is as abhorrent as the concept of capitalism itself. Liming acknowledges this, noting that reading ‘is unique in being a form of production that resists monetization and the logic of structural incentives’. And yet in continuing to depict reading as a ‘form of production’, Liming ignores the fact that both reading and writing can take place outside of a university context, and can even have a purpose outside of academia.
The idea that reading doesn’t have value because one isn’t being paid to do it is abhorrent.
She seems to forget that reading can be a pleasure.
This omission is repeated by Nicholas Cannariato in his follow-up essay, ‘Why We Read and Why We Write’, where he extols the value of reading as ‘a moral and subversive act’. While he initially wonders whether reading might be ‘morally inferior to writing’, Cannariato ultimately concludes, after ostentatiously rereading a famous essay by George Orwell (another of those writers we all have to read), that ‘writing and reading weren’t absolutely contrary after all’ as ‘each undertaking required a capacity for solitude and a willingness to face likely irresolvable questions’. In this way, the act of reading, according to Cannariato, is ‘a disengagement from the commercial and competitive in pursuit of a heightened moral sense coupled with aesthetic and intellectual engagement’.
What connects these three essays (apart from their flippant misreadings of each other’s main theses in pursuit of their own) is their determination to stake a claim for the righteousness of their own reading proclivities. Cannariato’s moralising on reading’s value in cultivating the ‘quiet virtues of patience, attention and self-denial’ is no less elitist than Hungerford’s and Liming’s arguments before him: all three seem to desire some kind of recognition for their efforts, a metaphorical gold star that marks them out as ‘good readers’ at the expense of other, less discerning plebeians. In real life, though, you don’t get an elephant stamp for reading Dostoyevsky. By arguing for the ‘virtue’ of reading (or not-reading), academics like Hungerford, Liming and Cannariato strive to occupy a moral high ground that only they can see.
By arguing for the ‘virtue’ of reading (or not-reading), academics…strive to occupy a moral high ground that only they can see.
That’s the thing about a bubble: it obscures what is outside of it. And outside of the literary bubble is a world full of people who are both not reading and not not-reading Infinite Jest – who actually couldn’t care less about David Foster Wallace.
This is apparent in the recent ‘Reading the Reader’ report published by Macquarie University and the Australia Council for the Arts, which surveyed almost 3,000 Australians about their reading habits. The survey found that while 92 per cent of Australians read books for pleasure, only 15 per cent enjoy reading what they would identify as ‘literary’ fiction. This is in contrast to the 48 per cent who read crime/mystery/thriller novels, 36 per cent who read historical fiction, and 32 per cent who read science fiction/fantasy. Moreover, while 60 per cent of respondents read for relaxation or stress relief, 50 per cent for the pleasure of a good story and 47 per cent to escape reality, only 29 per cent read for the purpose of ‘engaging with literature and ideas’ and only 13 per cent to ‘be part of a conversation about books’.
It’s easy to become trapped inside the self-perpetuating bubble of the lit world – to feel the pressure to have read the right books; to curate the perfect #springreadingstack that illustrates to your Twitter followers both your industry savvy and your aesthetic depth; to take a position on the latest literary furore. And it’s easy, while doing all these things, to lose sight of the fact that, for most of the population, while reading can be transformative and enlightening and educational, it can also simply be pleasurable.
For most of the population, while reading can be transformative and enlightening and educational, it can also simply be pleasurable
When I was a child and a young adult, reading was joyful. It was all about the delight of discovery, the thrill of narrative, the felicity of becoming familiar with new characters, settings, worlds and words. There was nothing virtuous about the act of reading – but that did not make it worthless. Its worth was not only in, as Mr Darcy might haughtily propose, ‘the improvement of [my] mind by extensive reading’, but in the pleasure that I derived from it.
This is not to disclaim the merit of critical reading, or to dismiss the unquestionable value of scholarly analysis. But we must be careful, whilst showing the appropriate reverence for reading as an act of cultural criticism, to not to make shameful the act of reading for pleasure. In an increasingly hostile world, reading can be an escape, a consolation and a joy.
So read anything you like. Read cosy mysteries and interstellar romances and historical epics, read picture books and graphic novels, read books about people like you and about people nothing like you, about boy wizards and girls who can fly and women who ride on trains. Read bestsellers and classics and old books and new books and dusty paperbacks that you find in op-shops. Don’t be ashamed of anything that brings you pleasure, no matter what the literati might say.