why read?

On January 22, 2009, I had this to say about literature on a blog that will remain nameless, not because I begrudge her a tip of my hat, but because I feel slightly awkward re-purposing it for my own gratification. I’m bad that way.

Reading good literature:

1. Exposes readers to what a well-constructed sentence looks like, sounds like, feels like.

2. Introduces unsurpassed words, images, ideas, and feelings.

3. Provides unique access to the qualia of others’ lives.

4. Demands thoughtfulness, as good readers must be attuned to changing points of view, the glories of characterization, and the causal constraints of plots, etc.

5. Encourages self-clarification, -knowledge.

6. Sharpens powers of observation through metaphor, myth, and analogy.

7. Encourages empathy for and tolerance of others (speculative), i.e., we’re better insight psychologists as a result of reading about characters in stories.

8. Improves abstract and social reasoning and as well as cultivates prudence (speculative).

Of course, I wish 7-8 weren’t merely speculative. I wish they were certitudes known by all. I wish that reading the world’s great literature (profane is sane!) is the surest path to moral improvement.

But I have my doubts.

Now, while these may be effects of reading, they don’t figure as reasons or motives for why I read, at least not largely. In truth they strike me as too intellectual. I’m wary of them, suspicious. They might pick my pocket when I’m not looking. Maybe my reading of Herzog is to blame. Moses, that poor old bastard, that rejected husband and washed-up scholar, loves abstractions; he delights in categories. And look where it gets him. Mired. He’s just as likely to state a truth as he is to spit venom.

Anyhow, I don’t read for these reasons. Or if I do, I read for all of them and none of them, as the case may be. Have I just performed an academic pirouette, my answer, that is? I hope not, I don’t think so. I read for enjoyment and insight, for distraction and entertainment. But mostly I read because no matter what state of mind I’m in, I can readily find a reason to read, be it what it may.

And any old reason will do.

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14 Responses to why read?

  1. 9. The neurotic satisfaction of making tick marks on a list. “I have now read 241 of the 1,001 books I must read before I die.”

    Oh, sorry, you seem to be listing good reasons to read good literature, not common reasons.

    I suppose there must be some books that I could categorize more cleanly – something I am reading like a reference work. I doubt, though, that I would then call it “good literature,” so the categories would not matter. You’re right – it’s everything at once, plus more.

    Poor Herzog. I lived for a while in the apartment building next to the apartment building where Bellow wrote Herzog.

    • AR, you’re becoming positively promiscuous with autobiographical details! Where did Bellow write Herzog?

      • The brick apartment building at the east end of 55th St, near the lake. Standard Hyde Park lore – could be wrong. Thomas Mann also once lived nearby, in Windermere House, where he wrote part of Doctor Faustus. Or so I was told.

        Did you read the thrilling tale of my real life encounter with Bellow?

        One element of Herzog was instantly recognizable to Hyde Parkers – the house in the eavesdropping scene near the end was unmistakable. There is a distinctive little development near Powell’s bookstore and the train tracks; the house is one of those.

      • nicole says:

        AR, did I know that? Not about Bellow, I mean, but about you. My parents-not-in-law live in Jackson Towers, so I’ve certainly heard the lore myself! They did lead me to believe it was true. I did not know about Thomas Mann.

        Kevin, I too am constantly suspicious of my reasons for reading. Some days I even decide I should stop, at least until I figure it out! But then I always come to the most important one, which I can never ignore for more than a couple days: it keeps me sane. It’s actually a necessity at this point, and hopefully for your reasons 1-8 (among others!).

  2. Love it Kevin.

    I would say – without being up myself of course! – that those of us who read for the reasons you give are more or less there (for most of them anyhow) and therefore we don’t really read for those reasons. Then again, have we got there because we have read? Hmm…

    I think I’d say we read because we can’t help it … why we can’t help it? Well, that’s another question methinks!

  3. PJ says:

    I agree that the distinction between motive and effect is important. I read fiction for pleasure and relaxation. A well-wrought sentence, an evocative image, or a finely developed narrative are all things of beauty. And to inhabit another point of view on the world disburdens consciousness of the constant strains of daily life. It is also, I will venture, unique in affording the paradoxical experience of being genuinely alone–together with another person (the authorial consciousness).

    Yet I feel the need to assure myself that these pleasures are not entirely ephemeral, and that literature is more than mere escapism. I believe there are some books that can help us in small ways to be better people. But I suspect such books are a minority, even within the “literary canon.” Furthermore, I’m not sure that these books are even the best way to make us better in the few ways they can.

    To give an example, inhabiting the point of view of someone of another ethnicity, or from a foreign culture, might expand our range of sympathy to include those who otherwise registered only as “other.” I remember a conversation I had in high school with a friend who had recently read Native Son. (Like me, this friend is white.) He saw a black guy trying to get into a building through a locked side-entrance. My friend went over and offered directions to the main entrance. He attributed this action, fully cognizant its triviality in the larger scheme of things, to Wright’s novel.

    The point of this example is what a tiny piece of good this is. And also that there are many other ways it and its like could be effected without anyone needing to read a 500-page piece of fiction. Someone who wanted to become a better person, or to help make his students better people, it seems to me, would do better to work with non-fiction about problems we can address with concrete action, or to actually contact disadvantaged people, perhaps through community service. Those cases in which literature is the optimal means of moral instruction seem rare indeed.

    Harold Bloom is trenchant: “The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own[….] If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation” (WC 28). Reading, instead, is about the cultivation of oneself as an individual. Nevertheless, according to Bloom: “The study of literature, however it is conducted, will not save any individual, any more than it will improve any society. Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us to overhear when we talk to ourselves. Subsequently, he may teach us how to accept change, in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change” (29-30). Literature directs us inward. What we do when we get there — and whether we return to the social world a better or worse person — seems to me massively underdetermined by the literary work.

    Perhaps we can think about reading as a kind of guided act of reflection. The work directs our imagination in a direction it would not otherwise have ventured. But what we do with the material uncovered is up to us–whether we mull it over, actively relate ourselves to it, and let it change us.

    Yet, we must note, “change” lacks ethical valence. Literature stimulates the imagination and so provides occasion for the acts of self-reflection whereby consciousness transforms itself. Sometimes this makes us better people (more compassionate, sympathetic, prudent, etc.). Sometimes, however, it merely feeds our neuroses: self-reflection is a virtue, but only if balanced against a healthy spontaneity. And much of the time, of course, we read passively or in a state of distraction and are changed not at all.

    Wish I could end on a happier note!

    Cheers,
    PJ

    • Hi PJ, I enjoyed your post to my comment! I agree with everything you say, and especially appreciate your cautiousness: “can,” “sometimes,” “might,” “may,” and appreciate, too, the somber note on which you end. I wish Bloom had adopted a more speculative tone. Will not save anyone! Lord. Imagine Bloom sans a readerly life. It can’t be done. Although the conditions under which literature transform a soul are very poorly understood, we know it happens. Thankfully.

  4. […] reasoning for reading good […]

  5. […] reasoning for reading good […]

  6. PJ says:

    Thanks! There are a couple of authors I like on this question. Martha Nussbaum (Love’s Knowledge) argues that literature furthers our moral education as in your (7) and (8) by way of (3), (4) and maybe (6). She insists upon the dimension of particularity that is placed at the fore in literature, but necessarily excluded by the universal terms of moral philosophy. Literature trains us in the identification of moral salience, and there is no a priori methodology by which to distinguish the morally relevant from the irrelevant in any concrete situation; in her Aristotelian terminology, it is an education in phronesis (prudence, practical wisdom). Hence a careful reading of Henry James or Proust is better suited to improve our moral faculties than a careful reading of Kant or Mill.

    Wayne Booth (The Company We Keep) — a literary critic by training, rather than a philosopher — also argues that literature has a morally transformative function. Undistracted by polemics against the methodologies of professional moral philosophers, he does a better job, in my view, of outlining the primary mechanisms by which such transformation can take place. He also achieves a better sight on the diversity of literary practices and techniques, and so too of the diverse ways in which they might affect us.

    Like Nussbaum, Booth operates in a loosely Aristotelian framework. His primary focus, however, is the role of literary experience in a complete human life, its contribution to our highest aim: the achievement of eudaimonia (happiness, flourishing). This is to say that his first question concerns the the intrinsic value of literary experience, and only secondarily its impact on the moral valence of our actions.

    Booth describes works of literature as extending various kinds of invitation, offering to engage the attention of the reader in different ways (practical, cognitive, formal). By accepting such an invitation, the reader commits himself to actively caring about something for the duration of his reading. Reading a book requires submitting, at least provisionally, to the norms of the book. Booth talks about this in terms of accepting a certain “patterning of desire” in accordance with the kinds of expectations that the book sets up. Yet he explicitly rejects the view that we mimetically acquire the virtues or vices exempified in the work, as if reading a ‘virtuous’ book were enough to instill a virtuous character. To learn from a book we must actively engage with its world: you have to put your imagination to work and uncover analogues to your own experience, a process that he presents on the model of a conversation between the reader, the characters, and the implied author of the work.

    The value of such literary engagement will depend, of course, on the ethos of the world being offered. Booth discusses this in terms of ‘measures of literary friendship.’ His catalog of such measures include questions about the range of issues raised by the book, the coherence of its world, the intensity of engagement demanded, the responsibility entrusted to the reader, the intimacy of tone, the dramatization of the implied author, the level of otherness or familiarity, and, ultimately, what kind of a stance all of its rhetorical features suggest that we adopt with regard to whatever questions it might pose. “The authors who become our lasting friends,” he proposes, “are those who offer to teach us, by the sheer activity of considering their gifts, a life larger than any specific doctrine we might accept or reject” (CWK 222).

    (Oh, and I meant to say earlier, thanks for the Taubes review.)

    Cheers,
    PJ

    • Hi PJ, you write, “Hence a careful reading of Henry James or Proust is better suited to improve our moral faculties than a careful reading of Kant or Mill.”

      I’m reminded of Eric Schwitzgebel who, after compiling data on library book thefts and noticing that philosophy texts go missing at a higher differential rate, wondered if philosophy doesn’t simply make us better rationalizers. I’d like to see Nussbaum go one step further, “A careful reading of Henry James or Proust is better suited to improve our moral faculties than a careful reading of Kant or Mill” or Nussbaum.

      “He [Booth] also achieves a better sight on the diversity of literary practices and techniques, and so too of the diverse ways in which they might affect us.”

      This is when a philosopher/critic becomes interesting to me, when they examine the plumbing of a literary text, and boost my appreciation of it.

      “Booth describes works of literature as extending various kinds of invitation, offering to engage the attention of the reader in different ways (practical, cognitive, formal). By accepting such an invitation, the reader commits himself to actively caring about something for the duration of his reading. Reading a book requires submitting, at least provisionally, to the norms of the book.”

      Do you think the language of “invitation” and “submission” and “norms” can be equally said of music, sculpture, painting, theater, and other art forms?

      • PJ says:

        K: I’d like to see Nussbaum go one step further, “A careful reading of Henry James or Proust is better suited to improve our moral faculties than a careful reading of Kant or Mill” or Nussbaum.

        PJ: Right, but I think she actually has a pretty good response to this. Love’s Knowledge is a collection of essays in philosophical literary criticism. By grounding herself in the fine-grained particularity of the literary text, she avoids the abstract universality to which she objects in conventional moral philosophy. Rather than propounding a one-size-fits-all moral code, she can instead frame herself as participating in the sort of conversation championed by Booth as ethical literary criticism.

        K: Do you think the language of “invitation” and “submission” and “norms” can be equally said of music, sculpture, painting, theater, and other art forms?

        PJ: Definitely, yes. But I do think that there is something special about the explicitly conceptual-linguistic form of literature. As Hegel says, poetry is the most spiritual of the arts. It engages us specifically as thinking beings. Although music, for instance, also extends a sort of invitation and requires that we submit to certain norms if we are to enjoy it, these norms seem to operate closer to the affective dimension of experience.

        Right now I’m listening to Alison Krauss. It’s been a quiet day after a hectic week, I have the house to myself and a baking project underway — her music just seems to fit the mood. Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” or Keith Jarrett’s “Köln Concert” would have done as well. At the fitness center, I’m far more likely to have the Black Eyed Peas or Lady Gaga blasting through my earbuds. On the road running errands, perhaps some classic rock. In all cases, it seems like what I’m doing is picking the music to cultivate or intensify a very general atmosphere or mood, which then proceeds to color my experience of the world as a whole.

        The object of literature, by contrast, is conceptually differentiated. You always seem to get a greater quantity of different kinds of stuff, even if you’ve read the book before and have a clear idea of what to expect. Works of literature situate the reader, not as a feeling being in the world, but as a thinking and acting being in a specific social context. For instance, I recently finished Revolutionary Road, and it encouraged me think critically about marriage, suburban life, intellectual pretension, and the ethical status of authenticity in a complete human life. Because of this active engagement with a specific content, something from my experience has stayed with me–whereas whatever music I listened to that week has left no discernible trace.

        But these are very tentative reflections. What do you think are the most relevant differences between literature and music (or another art-form of your choosing)? Does literature do something important that other arts cannot? Or do you think that all of the important stuff you get out of literature someone else could just as well access through, let’s say, sculpture or dance?

  7. Let’s get one thing straight: I love Allison Krauss. Second thing is this, “Works of literature situate the reader, not as a feeling being in the world, but as a thinking and acting being in a specific social context… Because of this active engagement with a specific content, something from my experience has stayed with me–whereas whatever music I listened to that week has left no discernible trace,” is perfectly said. Feeling thinking acting being. That’s what literature appeals to. K

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