The Importance of Reading

Introduction: Reading as Part of Everyday Life

No one would argue that people today are not reading; we see them peering into their smart phones, pads, and laptops with a near obsession. But how and what they are reading may be a different matter, especially in the academy, a place where one assumes serious and systematic reading is occurring.

Reading is basic to human life, something considered fully by Mark Edmundson in his Why Read? (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004). Edmundson aims his book at literary students, asserting that literature is crucial to life, that it guides us in how to live one’s life (and is the essence of a liberal arts education). He argues that “true humanistic study is not geared to generalized, portable truths; it is geared to human transformation” (p. 51). It is reassuring, to me at least, that there are academics who still value reading. In our digital era, it seems to be something we don’t do much anymore, even in the university. We browse, scan, and play with words, but I am not sure we really read anymore.

 

Many others have contributed lamentations about the state of reading. One of the more interesting explorations by a writer about the value and nature of reading comes from novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined By Reading: A Life in Books (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). Schwartz, wandering through various kinds of reading and encouraging others to read, sets the tone of her book early on: “If those of us who live by language become superfluous in years to come, it will not be because of the advance of technology, but the loss of coherent discourse” (p. 24).

Reading and Its Importance for Writing

Just about every one who considers improving writing states that it starts by being a good reader. This is one reason why we have many essay collections by writers and scholars who include their reviews. Professional book reviewers have assembled essays, examples, and memoirs about what they do and how they learned to become readers. Michael Dirda, in his Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), presents his lessons about reading and its importance: “We turn to books in the hope of better understanding our selves and better engaging with the meaning of our experiences” (p. xv). In a more recent collection of columns, Dirda provides an explanation for the importance of physical books: “Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much you’d like to know. . . . Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, remind you, chastising you, calling to you. Plus, book collecting is, hands down, the greatest pastime in the world” [Dirda, Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (New York: Pegasus Books, 2015), p. 233].

Many writers have concentrated on the importance of reading for writing, such as Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them (New York: HarperCollins, 2006). Prose, a prolific fiction writer, starts with a common comment made by writers, that “Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books” (p. 2). She works from basic building blocks, sentences and paragraphs, to more complex concerns, narration and dialogue. She poses interesting questions, such as understanding why some books have lasted for centuries (and what we can learn from this). Prose laments that her worse experience in learning to become a writer was graduate school where she learned that other students and faculty did not share her love of reading and were more interested in theory and other matters. The book includes an interesting list of books worth reading for learning how to write. Likewise, novelist Pat Conroy offers up a memoir of his reading and its influence on him and his writing, in My Reading Life (New York: Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 2010). At one point, Conroy describes his discovery, after moving to Atlanta, of a secondhand bookstore influencing his reading and writing: “I had stumbled upon the secret watchman of the most profound and illustrious intellectual life I would ever experience. Thousands of books roared out my name in joyous welcome when I entered that shop for the first time. Their presence both attracted and intimidated me. Already my calling as a writer had altered the course of my life, yet the two books I’d written seemed anemic to me, boilerplate at best, and I lacked the understanding, the sheer depth of culture I’d need if I were to touch the sourceless, incandescent seas that roared inside me” (p. 110). Conroy offers the usual observations about the task of writing: “Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them visible and clear” (p. 304). And, among his commentary is one of my favorite assessments, “There is enormous power in stating something simply and well” (p. 314).

Some might complain that considering reading as an aid to improve writing might make reading a chore, killing it as a pleasurable task. Some have focused on the joys of value. A good example of this is Wendy Lesser’s two books, Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering (New York: Houghton Mifflin, Co., 2007) and Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Of course, Lesser reminds us there are benefits even from reading for pleasure, such as this in her more recent book: “The good writer remains vitally present in every line he writes, and even when the mortal author dies, the voice on the page is still alive with that individuality” (p. 92). Writing for the ages has its attractions. In a send-up of the pleasures of reading, Laureen Leto, in her Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Reading Everywhere (New York: Harper Perennial, 2012), provides an interesting and entertaining morsel about the nature of reading. In the volume, for instance, she includes a long description of “fake” reading, that is, how to convince others that you are familiar with certain authors and books that one hasn’t actually examined. She also, occasionally, makes a serious comment, such as, “As book covers slip from hands and are replaced by plastic tablets, readers lose the wonderful, clandestine opportunity to quickly create a mutual understanding with strangers” (p. 204), another bit of testimony to why authors and readers should reflect on the impact of the transition from print to electronic books. Well-known critic and humanities professor Harold Bloom, in his How to Read a Book and Why (New York: Scribners, 2008), has contended that we should not attempt to influence or improve our neighbors through our reading. “Self-improvement is a large enough project for your mind and spirit; there are no ethics of reading” (p. 24). Bloom muses about reading novels, plays, poems, and short stories.

Reading in the Digital Era

A lot of the writing about reading is in response to the growing dependence on the digital and connectivity. Many have lamented the loss of reading in our era, such as David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2010). Ulin, a book critic, offers up many observations on this theme, such as “Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being” (p. 16). He asserts about how we have to arrange ourselves in the proper physical space, stating, “to read, we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. That seems increasingly elusive in our overnetworked society, where every buzz and rumor is instantly blogged and tweeted, and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know” (p. 34). This seems like a good description of what is going on.

Other writers and scholars have given us meditations about reading, sometimes through the lens of a unique reading program, such as Phyllis Rose, The Shelf: From LEQ to LES (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). In her systematic reading through a section of the membership New York Society Library, Rose provides a perspective on writing, reading, publishing, and libraries and the relationship between them. Interesting insights emerge, such as “Creativity can be thought of as a stone you roll down a ramp that you yourself built” (p. 12). Rose also provides a different view on the issue of reading an e-book, reminding us sometimes that a physical book can get in the way of reading or that some reading is made easier by the use of an e-book, such as in, “I did not mind the absence of paper and pages. I did not miss the yellowed paper of an ancient paperback crumbling in my hands as I turned pages. It actually helped to weld this somewhat disjointed narrative together to have the bland screen flick to the next block of text without a constant numerical assessment of my progress” (p. 33). Some of her comments venture into other areas of academe and scholarship, such as, “I wish that literary criticism could be built back up on the grounds of experience, closer to book reviewing than to academic theory, with a bias toward enthusiasm . . . “ (p. 215).

Reading and the Love of Books

There are countless books of personal testimonies about the love of books and reading. Columnist Joe Queenan has given us One for the Books (New York: Viking, 2012) in which he provides detailed descriptions of his house full of books, why and how he writes in his books, why printed books are better and so different from e-mails, his experiences in libraries and bookstores, and a host of other personal observations on the value of books and reading. His affection for the physical book is contagious, such as “Books are sublime, but books are also visceral. They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who do not want other people to see how they are amusing themselves, or who have storage and clutter issues, but they are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch, books that we can smell, books that we can depend on” (p. 27). While for many, this might seem like romantic nonsense, it does raise interesting questions for the aspiring and established writer about how they wish to see their work published. For example, for academics building careers, having physical objects that they created and shaped and that can be displayed in their office shelves might be reassuring and provide a better sense of their progress in life and career.

Reviewing Books

One of the common threads of advice in writing guides is that want-to-be writers need to be good readers, so it should be no surprise that many writers, both fiction and non-fiction, become reviewers of books. Many novelists become prolific reviewers of other writers’ work, producing interesting and useful observations about the craft of writing. William H. Gass, A Temple of Texts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) includes analyses of literary classics and would-be classics, introductions to the re-issues of lesser-known literary works, and the personal histories of favorite books. English professional Wendy W. Fairey provides testimony about how our reading is intricately interwoven with our own careers and lives, in her Bookmarked: Reading My Way from Hollywood to Brooklyn (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015). Fairey describes her book in this way: “My book is at heart homage to the books that transform us, that shape our understanding of the world around us and lead us to make large and small connections. Through the books I have read you will know me. Without knowing these books, you cannot know me well” (p. 19). At another place she writes, “Different books engage us at different junctures of our lives” (p. 173). What is particularly interesting is that Fairey started out to write a dry, scholarly treatise and abandoned it in order to write about the nature of reading in a semi-autobiographical fashion, with a goal to reach a larger audience – and she succeeds in doing this.

Some individuals have embarked on projects in reading for particular purposes and outcomes. Ann Morgan, The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015), describes her effort to read a book from every country in the world, in an effort to overcome “years of literary insularity” (p. 7). Morgan considers issues such as cultural identity, translations, commercial versus self-publishing, censorship, politics, and the impact of the Internet. She concludes with this observation” “The possibility exists that someone will find this volume stuffed in a box in an attic in a hundred years time and marvel – not at the concept of working through a sample of literature from every country in a year, but at the idea of reading books itself” (p. 256).

The Practice of Reading

Some writers have made outstanding contributions to the practice of reading. Anne Fadiman, the former editor of the American Scholar and a prolific essayist, has given us a trio of books on the subject. In her ExLibris: Confessions of a Common Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), she sets out to get to the heart of the value and joy of reading, something she feels is lost in most reviews treating books more like they were “toasters” (p. x). She believes that “Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our window sills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they become chapters in it themselves” (p. xi). She writes about merging personal libraries, reading as a child, reading poetry, how we treat physical books, the value of reading books in the place they describe, the nature of proofreading, and the physical characteristics of writing. In her edited volume, Rereadings (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), she brings together a collection of essays by prominent writers originally published in the American Scholar, exploring the nature of rereading as a “relationship between reader and book, like all relationships that matter, changes over time” (p. xiii). And, finally, her At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), resurrecting the notion of the familiar essay, considering the personal relationship between writer and reader, book and reader.

Studying Reading

We also can look at the increasing scholarship on reading. Patricia Meyer Sparks, On Rereading (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011), reflects on a lifetime of rereading and its value. She describes her book as a defense of reading: “It attempts to demonstrate how reading gets inside your head and what it does when it gets there” (p. 21). Most of her description features fiction, but she enumerates reasons for rereading that have implications far beyond just the joy of literature, including “reading for aesthetic satisfaction, reading for the plot, reading in search of life lessons or information or comfort, and reading for escape” (p. 242). There are insights about writing, as well, such as, “Reading and writing alike call on feeling as well as on thought” (p. 128). Sparks, for example, likens the rereading of a single book to a palimpsest: “That image provides a precise metaphor for the results of repeated engagement with a single book. The layers of experience accruing from early readings, partly erased, remain partially discernible. Each new layer both adds to and subtracts from what has gone before. It subtracts in obscuring old reactions by new ones; it adds new responses to those still remembered. The final product – if one can ever speak of finality in connection with rereading – includes more than is readily visible. Although one never altogether recovers previous layers, they add texture and meaning to the ultimate version” (p. 274). In this description, we also can see a description of what writing over a career can become or seem like. While many academic and professional writers might sneer at the idea of matters like feeling, but I believe that many do become so engaged with this activity that emotion is a legitimate factor.

Reading Classics

Some books have come to be known as classics, and every writer and scholar hopes that he or she will produce one of these. Melville’s Moby Dick is a masterpiece, but it is a work that was not recognized as such for a long time, as recounted in Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick (New York: Viking, 2011). John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is another classic, a book that remains in print and popular because it captures a fundamental aspect of human nature, meaning that it remains of current value not merely an example of literary excellence and bringing with it continuing controversy. Susan Shillingwater, On Reading The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin, 2014) provides insights about Steinbeck’s achievement and how and why the book came to be written. She contends that the reason this book remains popular is because it captures something of our human nature. Professional book reviewers, such as Maureen Colligan, offers various insights into what results in profound reading in her Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Reading and Losing Myself in Books (New York: Random House, 2005). The power and influence of reading such classics is emphasized clearly in Iranian literary scholar Azar Nafisi’s two books, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir of Books (New York: Random House, 2003) and The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books (New York: Viking, 2014). In the latter book, she reminds us why writers and their works are often controversial: “Writers are truth tellers, and that can sometimes put them in conflict with the state” (p. 294). This is doubly true for archivists who write, since the records they manage and preserve are often the reservoir of truth. Nafisi also grapples with the purpose of books, asking, “Shouldn’t the point of books be not to affirm our views and prejudices but to question and confront them?” (p. 302). Literary scholar and critic Andrew Delbanco strives to identify and explain why certain writers deserve to be known for having written classics in his Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997). Identifying a number of writers – including Melville, Thoreau, Lincoln, Henry Adams, Crane, Kate Chopin, and Edith Wharton – Delbanco concludes, “I celebrate them because I have no doubt that the world is better for them having written, and because I believe it is the responsibility of the critic to invite others to read them” (p. 214).

Writers, of all varieties, certainly reflect on whether what they write, whether a journal article or a book, will have a lasting influence. Jay Parini, Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America (New York: Doubleday, 2008), provides a historical view of “works that helped to create the intellectual and emotional contours of this country” (p. 2). Parini argues that these works that created and sustained “dominant themes of American life” (p. 4). One could try to do some reverse engineering here in order to create some principles that individuals writing today could draw on in order to produce significant new work. Maureen Corrigan, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (New York: Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Co., 2014) provides both an explanation of what makes a book great and how to study this aspect of a publication’s history. Corrigan argues, “I don’t know how he did it, but Fitzgerald wrote a novel that shows me new things every time I read it. That, for me, is the working definition of a great book: one that’s inexhaustible” (p. 15). Corrigan examines this novel by using archival records and private papers, movie and other media adaptions of the book, interviews, multiple rereadings, and teaching. Corrigan’s definition of literary significance has the potential for being adapted for other publication genres and provides some insights into how a writer might approach and evaluate his or her own work. There have been in-depth studies of how books latter deemed to be classics came to be, such as Michael Sims, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic (New York: Walker and Co., 2011).

Making Books Their Own

Readers can make books their own by writing their reactions and thoughts about what they read in the books themselves. Karla FC Holloway, Book Marks: Reading in Black and White; A Memoir (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006) explores this from the perspective of the African-American community, Holloway notes that not only are such clues left in the margins of books read, but in other places, such as memoirs and autobiographies: “The writers and scholars who have taken the time to consider and use the opportunity of autobiography and memoir to record which books have mattered in their adolescent and preprofessional lives have mattered do not only leave evidence of what mix of literature has informed them, but they also deliberately signal to their readers the instructions and guidelines they want used in a reader’s evaluation of their adult identities” (p. 179).

The Power of Books

All of this is a reminder of the power that books can wield, something sometimes lost in the debates about the future of the book. We can remind ourselves about the power of books by dipping into book history in order to understand how books have been used or targeted in times of war and international tensions. John B. Hench, Books as Weapon: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010) and Molly Guptill Manning, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War !! (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) are glimpses into how authors, publishers, and governments were involved in the publishing and disseminating of particular books as a means of influencing ideas about the purpose of war and its legacy. James Atlas, Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1992), considering the impact of books by individuals such as Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch, reminds us that books wield tremendous influence in other kinds of wars, in this instance the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s. Authors ought to reflect on the potential impact of any book project they embark on by delving into such historical events and trends. Another volume, written in the midst of the culture wars, is David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996). Denby takes the same two core curricular courses at Columbia in 1991 that he took there as a freshman in 1961 and presents us with an interesting reflection on the “great books” courses then under scrutiny. He concludes that what one gets out of such courses is not some basic pile of knowledge but a set of “critical habits of mind” enabling one to proceed in life (p. 355).

Reading in the University

In the increasing debates about the value of the liberal arts in higher education, we gain another glimpse into the value of reading and writing. Fareed Zakaria, In Dense of a Liberal Education (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), warns that “Those who seek to reorient U.S. higher education into something more focused and technical should keep in mind that they would be abandoning what has been historically distinctive, even unique, in the American approach to higher education” (p. 21). At the center of this historical sense is reading and writing. Reading “remains one of the most important paths to real knowledge. There are few substitutes of understanding an issue in depth than reading a good book about it” (p. 62). And then there is writing, where the “central virtue of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think” (p. 72). Zakaria is not a solitary voice in such sentiments. Kevin Carey, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), believes that higher education is being transformed by information technology and that the new university will replace degrees with digital evidence of learning, creating a new model of higher education. But Carey also makes another point, that “If education were only a matter of preserving information to students, the Gutenberg revolution would have destroyed the university five hundred years ago” (p. 69). He argues that information technology “won’t create a future of no higher-education institutions, where everyone learns alone. Students will still need organizations built around educational expertise: places that create curricula, employ experts and teachers, and assess what students know. Rather, information technology will allow for the creation of many new and different higher-education institutions that offer better education for a much lower price” (pp. 141-142). Even in the new university of the future, “Education in the future will still involve reading books, writing papers, solving problems, talking to other people, and getting out into the world. Nobody is going to have information uploaded into their brain via coaxial cables” (p.232). “Getting a legitimate PhD in a tough research field can take nearly a decade. But liberal education? If you take its meaning at all seriously, liberal education is the work of a lifetime” (p. 254), meaning a lifetime of reading.

Arrayed against all the arguments for the utility of reading is the reality that reading has declined and that people increasingly shy away from reading that is difficult and thoughtful in favor of other diversions or reading simple texts. Joanna Scott, in her essay “The Virtues of Difficult Fiction,” The Nation, July 30, 2015, upholds the value of such reading: “Careful reading is difficult because it requires continuous learning. We have to work to learn new methods of reading in response to new methods of writing. But who wants to spend precious free hours figuring out a Gaddis novel when they could be relaxing with Netflix? And with e-readers that limit the necessary page shuffling and rereading that are often required by complex texts, the Mr. and Ms. Difficults of the world don’t stand a chance.”

Conclusion

In this rather lengthy blog post I have commented on a variety of themes, but certainly not all of them, lurking in the considerable literature about the importance and nature of reading. I present some here, as a means of suggesting how people think of reading and how it may be changing. I also present these ideas as way of stating that reading is essential in the life of the academy, and it has to be nurtured in a very careful way.

 

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