March 15, 2011
The Lazy Reader
I’m not going to lie to you – I’ve been reading a lot of junk lately. Call it comfort reading. I am engaged in re-reading the entire Dune Chronicles by Frank Herbert for, probably, the tenth time in my life (but the first time as an adult). In between escapes to Arrakis I’ve visited one young adult novel (Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie) and one romantic melodrama (The Two Dianas, credited to Alexandre Dumas but, upon reading, more likely written by a collaborator) – nothing heavy or challenging. And, truthfully, I will probably start reading Patrick Rothfuss’s “Kingkiller Chronicle” next, because it’s been a long time since I’ve read any serious fantasy and I’m kind of pining for it. That’s just how I roll.
While none of the books individually are especially shameful, taken as the sum total of what I’ve read this year (beyond Canada Reads), it’s a bit of a disgrace. I’ve said as much to my friends and co-workers, and a fair percentage of them have responded with some version of “So what? Read what you want to read! There’s no shame in that!” I selfishly appreciate that sentiment, but it’s hard for me to agree with it. Is that all that reading is to me – just a leisure activity? A quiet, dignified form of watching television? It isn’t as if my literacy is in question. Looking at words on a page a certain number of hours per day isn’t doing me any inherent good – in fact it’s ruining my eyesight quite steadily. I’m beyond needing the “practice” of any old words.
Leisure itself is an indulgence. Of course it’s lovely and we should all have some, but a life of pure leisure is decadence and there’s some Victorian part of me which feels honour-bound to strive for a little more out of my life. I’m not a doctor or a politician or a social worker. I don’t spend my many hours giving to my community and helping my fellow persons – I sell books and I spend 8 hours a day reading, or reading about reading. If all my reading is pure self-indulgence, I might as well say my entire life is spent goofing off. I need to dedicate my reading to something bigger or better than pure enjoyment.
Throughout history the value of different kinds of reading has been questioned. Until a hundred years ago, the reading of novels of any kind was considered an indulgence – today we read nothing but novels. The feeling that novel reading is frivolous certainly persists, however. The Guardian recently reported that male writers and reviewers dominate the big literary papers and in their defense, the TLS was quoted as saying “And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.” Horrible as that sounds, my experience as a bookseller has been that he’s more or less right. The TLS reviews, primarily, non-fiction. They usually have one big fiction review and a page of little mini-reviews, but the bulk of the supplement is dedicated to forms other than the novel. In my experience, the primary readers of non-fiction are men. There’s an odd split here – the students we see at the store coming in to buy English course books are overwhelmingly female, but our “regular” customers who buy the rest of the store’s stock (primarily philosophy, cultural theory and politics) are overwhelmingly male.
This reflects a feeling that the serious intellectual spends his or her time reading non-fiction. It’s reflected in the pages of the TLS and the New York Review of Books. It’s reflected in the offerings from University Presses. And I am not going to mount a defense of novel-reading here. There’s no question that some novels have the power to expand the reader’s mind and bring important dialogues into the public sphere, and I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise. But much novel-reading is entertainment, even when at its most beautiful. Like other forms of art, the very best can change the world, but the bulk of it, while pretty, is mostly decoration. The overall themes, trends, and qualities of a literary culture reflect and inform society as a whole, but taken one book at a time, these are “just’ moments of indulgence.
I’ve always felt a book should be undertaken for a reason. To inform or to answer questions. To instruct. To introduce new cultures and stories. To sample the thinking of a different place and time. To challenge your intellect. Most books can fill a use, but to remain engaged by what you read, the reader has to take some responsibility for choosing books which continue to challenge and open new doors. Too much comfort reading and you’re accomplishing nothing with each new book – just spending time, albeit enjoyably.
I think of myself as being on a reader’s vacation. The kind where you visit some Westernized resort and do absolutely nothing of value until you run out of money and have to fly home. I’m lying on an metaphorical beach, unwinding and letting myself be pampered. It’s nice, but I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it. Eventually I have to come back to my real life and re-engage. If this blog has seemed slow, this is why: lazy reading only produces shallow thinking, and there’s little to report to an audience.
Dune and Rothfuss aside, I think my vacation is coming to an end soon. I’m starting to feel guilty. I’ve picked up J. G. Farrell’s Siege of Krishnapur in a lovely NYRB edition for my next read – yes, still a novel, but hopefully one with more horizon-expanding capability. Time to get back to work! What the overall project is in my case I’m still not sure but my hope is eventually my brain will be filled with enough ideas that some kind of fully-formed result will just pop out of it. Hope you’re all reading well too!