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 Work, How 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.

Bloom and Hirsch wanted to preserve an idea of literature as portable spiritual wealth. But your inner riches don’t count for much when they’re held in a devalued or even canceled currency. Thus Bloom’s tone of noble defeat: “How to Read and Why is a rearguard action. I was trying to rally a remnant.” Other recent “how to read” books take a different approach; they make no case for reading as an especially valuable or prestigious activity. Largely these books are designed to repackage literature as an acceptable leisure activity in a crowded marketplace of leisure options. They lower the expectations of what one gets from a book: not improvement, just a good time.

The new approach to reading curiously reverses the argument of Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson’s attempt to assure middle-class parents that their TV and video game habits, and their children’s, won’t cost them their dominant position in the global economy. Novels were once supposed to pose true social dangers (Edmund Burke blamed the French Revolution on Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloise); now, the archetypal guidebook tries to shore up the novel’s prestige through the lure of social deviance. John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide (2007) enters the novel in an unwinnable race to the bottom. An 18th-century literature professor and sometime Booker Prize judge, Sutherland draws his examples of great literature almost entirely from scenes of rape, gang rape, homosexual rape, or heterosexual anal sex: the two rapes in Coetzee’s Disgrace are dwelt on (but not the scenes of animal euthanasia), as is rape in Cloud Atlas and Last Exit to Brooklyn, the near rape in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, plus anal sex in Norman Mailer and D. H. Lawrence. It adds up to a creepy version of the schoolboy defense of culture: “Read Lady Chatterley for the good bits.”

Through the half-lad, half-cad jovial tone you catch a note of fear. Desperate for youthful relevance, Sutherland describes novels using “long shots,” “zooms,” “tracking,” and other vocabulary of film—or even computer programming (novels are “designed”). Such terminology reflects a status anxiety as much as a generational one: Never mind general education, does literature still matter to the people who “matter”? Those people are, in Sutherland’s case, the (still mostly male) global economic and technological elite. There’s a peculiar form of class masochism in this, typical of a displaced or rapidly declining group: To Sutherland and his publishers, nonreaders count more than readers, both because there are more of them and because a select few of these nonreaders now rule the world.

In the end, both the new-model and the old-model approaches to “how to read” rely on an implicit snobbery, whether the snobbery of “culture” or of “cool.” In this way they neglect one of the most powerful motives for reading: the wish to escape from society altogether, if only for a moment, in order to fashion or discover one’s true and unique self. The pleasure of reading, in other words, is the pleasure of a certain experience of freedom from ordinary contingencies. Of course it can also put you under the boot of other contingencies—you can even feel deprived of liberty by the books you read, inadequate to them, or simply bored. To take Sutherland to the limit, books can violate you, too, or try to. But then again they can also be resisted, won through, or won over, and even, miraculously, related to as lovers and friends, with the element of power tamed. (Not all sex is rape.) Those experiences can be useful, too—unless they’re pleasurable precisely because useless. It’s in any case the true test of freedom: to be able to love someone or even a book without either losing yourself or destroying the thing you love in a desperate attempt to possess it. The autonomy of novels and poems should be preserved and cultivated because it might be our last, best chance to attain our own autonomy.

Whatever the reasons for why we read, we always come up with them after we’ve already learned to do it. (We can’t make ourselves stop, can we?) But someone still needs to teach the how, which returns us to the schools, where most of us still get our first acquaintance with literature. Only 35 percent of American high school students qualified as proficient readers in 2005, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Nobody’s tried to find out how today’s “proficiency” measures up against the good old days, but we’d probably all get Cs in Harold Bloom’s high school English class at Bronx Science, or so you feel when you finish reading him. So maybe—is this a crazy idea?—reading needs to be taught, and taught well, rather than sold. Instead of writing more well-intentioned books, why don’t academics intervene directly in secondary school education? Let’s lend them out to state schools, public schools, and community colleges to teach for a few weeks a year. Morally, this is the equivalent of pro bono work in the legal profession. Let’s reward junior professors for community teaching rather than for publishing articles in academic journals. An extra sabbatical year could be offered, during which professors would work closely with young readers. Maybe this experience could actually change the way intellectuals think about literature. If a certain degree of literacy and appreciation for the complexity of great books (or just good novels) is as necessary for a healthy and free society as we’ve often heard or said it is, then maybe the only way (not the “Third Way”) forward is a Maoist-style cultural revolution in reverse: “INTELLECTUALS: INTO THE SCHOOLS!”

Back in New York. How did we escape, you ask? By turning around (when we’d reached a brick wall), confessing that reading belonged to everybody, and handing out our precious collection of zines, pamphlets, and even My Dog Tulip (goodbye, J. R. Ackerley). Ah well. Empty of heart, empty of soul, empty of wallet and bookbag, we’re grateful at least that our friend has sent a car to pick us up when we arrive at JFK. Except the car takes us back to his home, not ours.

Our friend is in bed with the covers over his head. “Fine, we did it,” we announce. “Almost got us killed. We hope you enjoyed your little laugh.”


“Say what?”

“I can’t do it anymore!” our friend repeats, throwing back the covers, eyes red from crying. “I realized while you were gone. I can’t write any more book reviews.”

“A fifth grader can write book reviews.”

“But I can’t,” our friend says—“morally. As soon as you were gone, I took my head out of the oven and I looked in the mirror. I’m neither young nor old. Neither here nor there. I wait for other people to write books. And then I write about them. That’s fine, the book review has a long and admirable tradition. But what about life? What if I’m standing in the way of other people, too, younger people—with fewer and fewer slots out there, for their own book reviews? Or what if I’m standing in the way of my self?”

“We don’t get it,” we say.

“No,” he sighs. “Nobody does.”

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