Friday, March 7, 2008

Against Reading

I'm reading The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, a truly delightful book of essays by Mikita Brottman. It's not really against reading, only against certain kinds of reading: the kind of reading that's good for you, that you do because you feel you ought to. Reading, says Brottman, is best thought of as a vice: a source of pleasure and "a tool for self-exploration."

Yes! Exactly! Reading is not like taking vitamins or working out -- it really isn't. It makes you pale and self-involved. Heavy readers have terrible social skills. We're constantly disappointed in people. We have obnoxious vocabularies and use words we can't even pronounce. There's no evidence that readers are happier than non-readers. It wrecks your eyesight. The only good reason to read is because you really like to do it, not because it will make you an Improved Person. It won't.

And you know what, there's nothing wrong with being a non-reader, either, as Brottman points out. Obviously, being actually illiterate is a terrible burden, but there are plenty of people who have no interest in books or literature who live fulfilling and even outstanding lives. I remember a friend of my parents who claimed to have not read a single book since college. But he was an amazing math professor and could sit down at the piano and play anything. You know, if the devil came to me and said, I'll let you be brilliant at math and the piano if you never read again... I would have to think long and hard about it. (I would probably choose reading, ultimately, but I'd feel a pang every time I looked at my piano.)

Also, Brottman devotes chapters to "trash" reading -- celebrity confessions, true crime, and psychological case studies (I LOVE psychological case studies!!): the kinds of stuff I'm often embarrassed to admit I read as much as I read literary fiction -- and says why it's just as valuable, in its way. Like good fiction, these genres explore why humans do the things they do and why they feel what they feel.

It's so marvellously refreshing to read about reading in a way uncluttered by self-help bullshit or nostalgic self-mythologizing.


Gloria, Writer Reading said...

I thought I was such a lowbrow lingering at the magazine counter at Walgreens to catch up on all the celebrity news. And then the latest Atlantic arrived and who's on the cover? Brittany Spears. I'm ecstatic. The Atlantic! It's now SO OK to read trash!

bookfraud said...

wow. terrific post.

i couldn't agree more that readers are anti-social, sport a vocabulary of a self-appointed elite that we can't even pronounce, and we can be miserable and have bad eyesight. there's no other reason to read (compulsively, as we do) unless we love it.

there is no evidence that reading makes one a better person or even smarter, for that matter. it makes one a reader. i feel the same way about my love of symphonic music -- i don't listen to schubert because it's good for me or it puts me on a pedestal, but that i just enjoy it.

(this is a such great post that has triggered so many thoughts for me that i'm going to have to write a blog post myself on it. sorry to rip you off, but as t.s. eliot said, "hacks plagiarize; geniuses steal."

rmellis said...

Gloria: Celebrities are like our greek gods, or something. Britney's the goddess of... of what? I dunno, but she's acting out our dreams and fears for us. She's shaving her head and going nutso so we don't have to!

Thanks, Fraud. What is it they also say? "Plagiarism is the highest form of flattery."

Mr. Saflo said...

I'm not sure what to think of this. Why is it that those who would defend reading, and lament that no one does it anymore (as I'm sure we've all done at some point), are also so quick to recoil at the idea that there is something edifying about it, that it is in any way a superior way to spend one's time? In fact, if bookfraud is correct and reading doesn't even have the decency to make us any smarter as we do it, why do we continue to allow it to be held in any more esteem than, say, playing video games?

Thanks in advance for your reply to my saucy and controversial post.

rmellis said...

Reading IS a better way to spend time, according to me. But really -- if my game-playing friend begs to differ, how can I argue? Really?

And video games do make you smarter in some ways. Books make you smarter in other ways. Both make you dumb in some ways.

I will always we the champion of the book. But turning books into the latest self-improvement device will kill them faster than anything.

Classical & Jazz Pianists said...

I have to say that Mikita Brottman's
book is entertaining read in itself as I am doing that this week . I went to literary criticism section in the Borders Book Store in Mt. Kisco, NY and found her book and pulled it down and was intrigued by the title and began to read it to see if I wanted to take her home with me. I did and I am not disappointed in that I concur with many of the things she points out about reading and readers and I am one who knows what she is saying and can be in her club if she had one. I am an avid reader and read widely and think that the love of reading is something that we should nurture in ourselves and our children as it is a way of opening the doors of perception none other than of the imagination which has been stultified by the media that makes us dumb since all we have to do is sit there passively and take it in. I like the active part of reading which helps you think and also helps you to become curious about the world and how it is conceived and perceived by language and the writers are to be regarded as an artist in their own right who
have ways of expressing the inexpressible and allow us to share their unique world and perspective if we are willing to read and be indulged to do so and to our benefit. There is no more suitable time alone in which we can just read as if this is a form of meditation or entertainment. So, Ms. Brottman gets a plus in my book for what she says has much merit.
Peter Tarsio