What Not to Read, and How!

Self help–style books about reading reappeared on the publishing scene in the last halcyon days of “Third Way” capitalism—when the world was embracing a kinder, gentler free market as a solution to all our problems, including the problem of universal education. With that memorable 1999 title, How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom completed his transformation from the vatic close reader of The Anxiety of Influence to a lonely crusader against declining reading standards. In fact, he wasn’t so lonely: Bloom was preceded, barely, by cultural literacy proponent E. D. Hirsch in How to Read a Poem (1999), and he’s been followed, in recent years, by a number of tenured professors and established writers, and even the odd celebrity with time on his hands: there’s How Novels WorkHow to Read Like a Writer, the deliberately parodic Ode Less Traveled, Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series, which followed Penguin’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare and American Literature. Most of these now originate in Britain. Even radical-socialist Terry Eagleton has one called, er, How to Read a Poem.

Eagleton used to encourage fraternization between workers and thinkers with defiantly populist lines like “The ordinary language of Oxford philosophers has little in common with the ordinary language of Glaswegian dockers.” Take that, J. L. Austin! These days, he’s pessimistic about even the possibility of proper conversation about literature: “like thatching, or clog dancing, literary criticism seems to be something of a dying art.” Marxist still, he now acknowledges that reading is another form of life threatened by capitalism triumphant.

Taken together, the new “how to read” books convey a sense that schools are no longer teaching people that skill. Hence the need to go outside the school system and rely on “market solutions.” But who’s the market here? Not teenagers badly served by underfunded public schools; the books are too high-end for that. Nor imaginary recent college grads whose (equally imaginary) theory-crazed professors taught them to do everything to a text but read it; too stodgy, these volumes. No, these are books for older adults either to give to a recent graduate, or, more often, to buy for themselves out of a feeling that young people just aren’t reading as much or as well as the Greatest Generation of readers.

The rhetoric and perception of decline, motivating what is essentially adult private education, marks an important shift from the old spirit of adult public education in the first generation of “how to read” books. That old spirit belonged to an immigrant ethos of upward mobility and self-improvement, best glimpsed now in the ferocious, larger-than-life autodidacts from something like Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March: Einhorn the real-estate speculator, mobster, and Shakespeare enthusiast; or Augie himself and his gang of Depression-era strivers who’d rather rob a bookstore than a bank. These characters now preside incongruously over the new market culture, like those WPA-styled murals of authors at our local Barnes & Noble.

Before Hirsch and Bloom, one has to go back more than fifty years in the Library of Congress Catalog to find a “how to read” title by a respected academic. Mortimer Adler, one of the founders of the University of Chicago’s “Great Books” program, published his How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education in 1940. “Liberal” here means market-oriented. For Adler, a robustly capitalist America would inspire its adult citizens, regardless of income or education level, with the urge to read Shakespeare and Dante on their way to the stockyards or the stock exchange. In the key chapter “On Self Help,” he advocates a literal “nose-in-a-book” approach: “The most direct sign that you have done the work of reading is fatigue. . . . If you are not tired out, you probably have not been doing the work.” For maximum fatigue, he recommends sitting upright in a straight-backed chair with a pencil handy and a notepad. If Adler’s words now make us reach for our remote controls, it might be because the old, always embarrassing idea that reading Shakespeare wouldn’t just make you a better person but also a wealthier and more respectable one is no more. “High culture” no longer signifies (and legitimates) “upper class.” Today’s rich and would-be rich can skip literature entirely. Or they can cultivate a taste for reading as they would for vinyl record collecting or sky-diving.

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