About Reading

It’s a strange condition of the world we live in that art requires almost constant justification. Especially the humanities.

“Reading doesn’t prevent genocide bro. Reading won’t stop the climate from changing, you know what I’m saying? The humanities are useless mate, they don’t teach you anything important do they? What kind of job are you going to get with a history degree?”

Blah. Blah. Blah.

Film director Steven Soderbergh gives a far more eloquent defence of art in general than I:

Art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being – literally seeing the world the way they see it. Then, if you have a really good piece of art and a really good artist, you are altered in some way, and so the experience is transformative and in the minute you’re experiencing that piece of art, you’re not alone. You’re connected to the arts.

The reason we need the humanities is because we are human. That ought to be enough.

Yet the art of reading is under a seemingly inexhaustible attack, like the Roman Empire it is overwhelmed; fighting a Sisyphean battle against everything electronic. A National Literary Trust study in 2012 surveyed 21,000 children and teenagers and found that they read less of everything. Comics, books, and magazines – all crowded out by the increasing pressure that the voltaic world is putting on the physical reality of young people. 17% said they would be embarrassed if a friend saw them reading a book. Three in every ten said they choose to read every day in their spare time. A third of UK households don’t have any books in them.

There is a magnificent paradox here however. The ‘Millennial’ generation is far from illiterate. In fact it may be the first generation in history that is entirely composed of authors, albeit not particularly skilled ones. For what are Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Tumblr if not a form of publication, a forum for micro-fiction, instant information exchange and a kind of personal open wound style storytelling? Every precious thought or observation or opinion (especially opinion) is broadcast for consumption within the infinite milieu. Every email, tweet and post is validation of our existence, we need to be seen and we need to be heard – all the time.

To write well obviously requires literacy. It requires the ability to read and to have read well and yet Samuel Johnson’s aphorism that ‘what is written without effort is in general read without pleasure’ has never been more relevant. Tweets and posts are generally stacked like so many rusting cars in an endless scrapyard because they are instantaneous, utterly ephemeral and often just bursts of emotive flatulence. As the sender of nearly 12,000 tweets in the space of around 18 months I can vouch for how entirely pointless the vast majority of my little leakages are.

Some people refuse to see this. Within the Internet lies a utopian future. They almost always point to the Arab Spring and the ‘Twitter Revolution” in Iran circa 2009 as examples of the first flexing of the teeming sinews of a profound new Net-centric power that is a ‘Good Thing’ for literacy and truth and liberty. Many historians of the printing press strike similar notes. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, the historian who has done the most to trump up the ‘profound’ effects of the advent of printing in the 15th century, often does her utmost to downplay the invention’s use for ignoble purposes.

It goes without saying that the press soon reflected the worst of human nature. Almost as soon as it was invented it was used to publish superstitious nonsense like the Malleus Maleficarum, a text found in the libraries of good 16th century witch hunters everywhere. More often that not radical technological innovation will be used to support the ossifying structures of orthodoxy – not to bring them down. Filippo di Strata wryly observed that whilst the pen is a virgin, the printing press is a whore.

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What does that make the Internet? Iran had just twenty thousand Twitter subscribers in 2009 – there was no revolution there. The elite will tolerate limited dissent as long as it remains profitable and limited in its effects – exactly what cyber dissent is. Note that a far larger percentage of all posts on Twitter discuss association football than politics. Marx told us that the philosophers had just interpreted the world; the real purpose of our lives was to change it. This will not happen on the web, a realm of the emotionally incontinent and a place for entertainment not activism. The internet is a province of stupefaction beyond Aldous Huxley’s wildest nightmares. The digital utopians who place their faith in the ‘transformative’ aspects of the web are the new historicists, trying to find a laws and trends and generalizations where only singular and specific events exist.

Within Twitter and Facebook and all the other networked dives and virtual saloons that are beamed around the world a problem is revealed. People can’t actually write anything that will last longer than five minutes.

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It seems like a lingering truism to suggest that one cannot simply put pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard and create something worthy of consumption without first reading widely and diligently. In a recent article for the Los Angeles Review of Books William Giraldi discusses the writer as reader with specific reference to Herman Melville the author of Moby Dick. He quotes Hershel Parker (author of a vast two-volume biography of Melville):

“Melville was not reading in order to acquire knowledge for its own sake, his evident purpose in reading the epics of Western Civilization was to learn how to write.”

Melville’s vigorous reading of the epics, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost, is according to Giraldi, what injects such compelling potency into Captain Ahab, “the most compelling quester in the American canon”. The tradition of ‘proper’ reading retains its importance across literary culture. Just as there could be no Ahab without Milton’s Satan, without Ahab there could be no Judge Holden (arguably the single greatest evil imagined in 20th century literature) in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. McCarthy both acknowledges and rejects a comparison between his own creation and Milton’s Satan or Melville’s Ahab within his own work by saying of the Judge:

“Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there a system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go.”

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McCarthy is doffing his cap at readers familiar with both Moby Dick and Paradise Lost; in a rare interview for The New York Times given in 1992, McCarthy baldly acknowledges a truth that is disturbing for both undergraduates and academics who live cowering in fear plagiarism:

“The ugly fact is books are made out of other books.”

Without reading and the conversation that has existed since the first story was told around a fire in some dismal encampment or daubed on a primordial rock face, there is no writing. Reading must happen so that we too may participate in this authorial dialogue. We must struggle against the limits of our life span and perception in order to perceive this ceaseless, ever varying and overlapping emulsion that can carry us to the shores of the past and the future.

There ought to be shame and handwringing about the failure of publishers and educators to inspire the next generation of readers. It is not just a case of the Millennials consuming ‘trash’ entertainment either. We have noted the pitfalls of the Internet but that does not mean that the literary world is an exclusive and privileged ghetto where the best stories reside.

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People increasingly turn to television for the best stories; Game of Thrones (that rare beast that supersedes and improves its source material), Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire have initiated a halcyon era of programming where storytelling and complex characterization is key. The appetite for great stories exists. What are the literary phenomena of the past decade? Unctuous and turgid tales like Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Potter.

Henry Miller observed that ‘nothing is proposed that can last more than twenty-four hours,’ and ‘we are living a million lives in the space of a generation.’ Miller was writing in the 1930’s, before the present era of instant gratification and communication. Somehow in a world where we can live a million lives in a week and nothing that is proposed can last more than an hour before it lies dissected and cold, our l’angoisse de la mort is heightened and amplified. With each added demand on cheapened time it becomes more precious. It is not a question of why we read then, but why should we continue to read?

John Williams gives a lyrical answer in his novel Stoner by evoking the mysterious gestation of a true reader, that magical process shaped by both circumstance and that spark of the imagination each of us holds, in a truly mesmeric way:

“The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape and had no wish to escape.”

That is the transformation that occurs in all who learn to love literature and it is why those that do will always read.

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