Americans have always prided themselves on being a practical, self-made people, suspicious of newfangled theories in foreign books. Early cultural heroes were worldly-wise figures like Daniel Boone and David Crockett, and bookishness was nearly the end of Ichabod Crane. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for his part, made a living telling Americans not to read. Yet, despite all our anti-intellectual bravado, the feeling that we should read books has never really been absent from our collective consciousness. The question is, which books to read, and how? For over 60 years now there has been no shortage of books answering these two questions. Here are the latest.
For Marjorie Garber, we should read “literature,” and her goal in The Use and Abuse of Literature is “to return literature to the center, rather than the periphery, of personal, educational, and professional life.” Garber notes that until 200 years ago, the word “literature” could be used as a possessed noun. Dr. Johnson, she remarks, once referred to Milton’s reading thus: “His literature was unquestionably great.” Garber wants to recapture this particular use of the term. “The result,” she writes, “of such a radical reorientation of our understanding of what it means to read, and to read literature, and to read in a ‘literary’ way, would be enormous.”
That “radical” is telling. Rather than returning to an older way of thinking about literature—for Johnson, another meaning of the term was belles lettres—Garber is interested in legitimizing (wonderful Marxist term) her egalitarian definition and “critical” approach. So what is literature for Garber? Better start with what it’s not. It’s not works that possess stylistic mastery, or works of redeeming social value, or works of particular genres (drama as opposed to graphic novels, for example), or works that embody certain unchanging truths about human nature, or even books taught at university. No, literature is whatever people agree to call literature for various “aesthetic, political, situational, and cultural” reasons. Oh, and it’s works that pose “unanswerable questions.”
Let’s take that last one. It is true enough that great works ask questions—questions that often lack facile answers. Yet it is patently false that great works only ask questions, or always lack “closure.” Closure is not the same as ending. For Garber, all works end but none have closure. Yet, if closure is satisfaction, clearly all works have some sort of closure—even if it is the satisfaction of the absence of it. That the absence of closure is satisfying to some was made abundantly clear to me when I suggested in a seminar a few years ago that closure was unavoidable. I was quickly silenced by dismissive scoffs and panicked evil eyes. All meanings are possible, of course, except that one. Garber ends her own book with a chapter entitled “The Impossibility of Closure,” and I’m sure she is aware of the not-too-subtle irony of this. But I wonder if she is aware of the deeper irony—of the fact that so many literary critics of Garber’s ilk, herself included, find this absence of closure so deeply satisfying, both intellectually and morally.
Garber ushers in all of the standard reasons for viewing literature in her egalitarian, relativistic way—works that were once thought trash are now considered masterpieces, notions of truth, beauty, and goodness are relative, and genres once associated with the masses are now part of highbrow literary culture—none of which hold up to close scrutiny. I’m no fan of the divide between high and low culture, but all cultures have made distinctions between more and less valuable artifacts in terms of complexity, nuance, truth, beauty, and so forth. No doubt what used to be considered trash is sometimes considered great, but it would be ridiculous to turn such exceptions into the rule. Even The Waste Land and Leaves of Grass were considered great by an insightful few when they were first published. It’s rare indeed for a work to go from absolute scorn to the status of masterpiece.
So if literature is whatever folks decide it is, what is the use of reading it for Garber? This is not a mere academic question anymore: The humanities, as Garber notes, are on the ropes, funding is shrinking, and French departments are disappearing left and right. Well, because literature is a social construct that asks “unanswerable questions.” To read it—or, as Garber would say, to have it—is to think of all of life in these terms. To think in a “literary” way is to view roles, morals, and religious beliefs as constructs. It is to become an enlightened materialist and social democrat. If only literary scholars would begin thinking about literature in this way, the humanities (Garber believes) would be saved.
Marx had another term for this. It’s called “false consciousness.” It was much to my relief when, in the midst of Garber’s prescriptions, I received Alan Jacobs’s wonderful Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. We live not only in an age of distraction but one of liberal, Puritanical moralists, and Jacobs provides a wonderful respite from both. If Marjorie Garber is preoccupied with policing the use and abuse of literature, Alan Jacobs is more concerned with helping readers, or former readers, rediscover the joy of reading. And the first and most important step, for Jacobs, is to stop worrying about what you should read and simply read what strikes you. Start reading, he says, at whim:
Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day.
The problem with reading only Great Books under a sense of intellectual duty, and usually with the hope of improving ourselves, Jacobs writes, is that we close ourselves off to what these books have to offer. We treat these books not as valuable in and of themselves but as an exercise to be done to improve ourselves. But reading alone does not improve anyone: While some readers are good people, others are not. Reading at whim, for Jacobs, means reading a book “for itself” alone. It is only when you read in this way that you are truly reading.
This does not mean that reading is never difficult, or that all books are equally valuable. Nor does it mean that books make no moral demands on our lives. Moreover, reading at whim is not always sufficient: “Some forms of intellectual labor are worth the trouble. In those times when Whim isn’t quite enough, times that will come to us all, we discover this.” Because we have learned through practice that pushing through difficult texts brings “new and greater delights,” we continue to read long after whim has left us. For Jacobs, this is not reading out of duty but experience.
No doubt, experience helps us to make this choice, but I wonder if Jacobs overestimates our power not only to calculate those “new and greater delights” but to choose those deeper pleasures over more immediate superficial ones. Reading out of duty can free me from this calculation and push me to choose the deeper pleasures in spite of myself. Yet, overall, Jacobs is mostly right: Reading at whim is the best way to recapture the joy of reading.
And what of this “age of distraction” in Jacobs’s title? He thinks that it is exaggerated. Humans have always had distractions. Readers during Francis Bacon’s time were distracted by the overwhelming number of books! And if our age offers more opportunities for some distractions, it also eliminates others. Consider the temptation to flip to the back of a book to read the ending, or return to the table of contents. This, he notes, is difficult with a Kindle, requiring several steps:
The technology generates an inertia that makes it significantly easier to keep reading than to do anything else. E-readers, unlike many other artifacts of the digital age, promote linearity—they create a forward momentum that you can reverse if you wish, but not without some effort.
Should we read for use or pleasure? Dr. Johnson once said that “if a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination.” Read at whim, that is, and discover the true utility of books.
Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.